robotics

Team Brickbusters, from left, coach Luis Tavares, Rider Abbott, Eleanor Rosen, Stella Coe, Andres Jacinto, Noah Baker, Lincoln Butson, Kaila Rebolledo Unda and coach Vicki Phelps. The Pinhead Institute’s Telluride FIRST Lego League robotics squad qualified for states for the first time ever during a regional competition over the weekend. (Photo courtesy of Suchitra Baker)

The Pinhead Institute’s Telluride FIRST Lego League robotics team is heading to states for the first time ever, after the squad of seven local students qualified during a remote regional competition over the weekend.

Team Brickbusters — Rider Abbott, Noah Baker, Lincoln Butson, Stella Coe, Andres Jacinto, Kaila Rebolledo Unda and Eleanor Rosen — wowed the judges with its life-sized “friz-fraz-frow” project, which is a more advanced, and technical, game of tic-tac-toe in winning the best overall robot design award. The team was also nominated for the Global Innovation Award, which they’ll be preparing and competing for in addition to the state tournament April 24 in Golden.

“I would have to say that they worked hard. They were pretty stubborn in that they really wanted to do it. They really wanted to finish everything and compete, and they were ready,” said fourth-year coach Luis Tavares, who won the top coach and mentorship award at the regional meet.

Typically, the robotics season is over by December, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the season lasted longer this year, and it wasn’t without its unique set of challenges, mainly working 100 percent remotely.

“To think that these kids had the stick-to-itiveness to stay through March and be that good at the competition is just shocking, amazing and heartwarming,” Pinhead Executive Director Sarah Holbrooke said. “It asks so much of the kids and that they can sustain that through a year of COVID when everybody is just so sick of everything, these kids are really spectacular.”

Teams use UV3 “bricks” to build their bots and then follow a specific prompt that changes each competition. For the regional tournament, the prompt was to come up with a fun, outdoor activity since everyone has been inside so much and racking up screen time.

“The kids came up with a lot of ideas. They were very supportive of each other,” said Vicki Phelps, a retired science teacher who is helping coach the team for the first time this year. “But they agreed on a new game that is really a clever, creative variation of tic-tac-toe, but it’s an outdoor, active game with Frisbees and involves running. There are two teams, and it’s very active.”

She added that the team had to adapt to the changing weather patterns, as snow blanketed town when they were filming their project for the competition, but Team Brickbusters did so without hesitation.

The robotics team, which is for students in grades four through eight, has been popular, especially in the Latinx community, since Pinhead started the free program six years ago. During a normal year, the institute sponsors several teams at various age and skill levels throughout the region, including in Ouray County and the West End, but most teams didn’t organize or compete this year due to the challenges the pandemic created.

“We’re really lucky that Pinhead was able to do this. I wish I had an opportunity to do something like this when I was younger. It’s super fun, but it can be really stressful, too,” Tavares said. “The one thing that I really like as a coach, and why I like to do it every year if I can, is that those kids get so comfortable with each other. Some kids start out really shy, but by the end, you see a big change.”

Both Phelps and Holbrooke spoke highly of Tavares, who gave all the credit to the kids and the program.

“I learn as much as they do every year,” he said.

But he’s being modest. In nominating Tavares for the coach and mentorship award this year, the team prepared a statement and answered a couple questions, including one about how their coach inspires them to do their best.

“He gives great directions and encouragement without doing the work for the team. He allowed the team to create the robot with kind and helpful support. He is an inspiration to us by how he supports the team and shows interest in our technology background,” they team wrote.

Another nomination question was why does your coach deserve “this very special recognition.”

“The learning environment is fun. Luis is an amazing man, in general. Luis is the perfect person to be a coach, and I consider our team very lucky. I learned so much from him this year,” the team wrote.

Tavares said he “couldn’t even talk” when it was announced he’d won the award

“The parents were calling and texting me and Vicki. It was nuts,” he added.

But he quickly changed the subject and explained he’s looking forward to taking the team to states, especially since there are three new members this year that haven’t experienced an in-person competition yet.

While Pinhead has already covered a majority of the $3,000 in costs for the trip to Golden, Holbrooke said a sponsor would be appreciated.

Anyone interested in sponsoring Team Brickbusters can contact Holbrooke at sarah@pinheadinstitute.org.

For more information about the Pinhead Institute, visit pinheadinstitute.org.