As more than 43 high school teams, including nine from Las Vegas, convened on the Cashman Center for the FIRST® Robotics Las Vegas Regional Competition, it’s easy to focus on the students and the intricate robots they designed.
Their mentors and coaches, however, are the reason they’re able to compete in the first place.
Sierra Vista High School’s robotics team was competing for the first time on their home turf with support from their mentor and science teacher, Rob Culberg.
Culberg and the team’s 16 students met seven days a week to design and build their robot.
“As a first-year team we’ve made a lot of mistakes, but I couldn’t be more proud of these guys,” he said, glancing at the students.
To get to the competition, teams must front between $5,000 and $6,000 for registration. That isn’t even the tip of the iceberg for the other fees that arise when building a robot.
According to Rick Bowersox, a Cheyenne High School robotics team mentor and science teacher, the team is $2,000 in debt due to costs surrounding the equipment, materials and competition fees.
“We’ve sold candy, received money from parents, community donations, and I’ve paid for some equipment out of my own pocket,” Bowersox said. “It costs more than $20,000 a year to do this, and we’re scrambling for every penny.”
Bowersox said he guides the team of 23 for five hours a day, five times a week, and 10 to 12 hours on the weekends.
“It’s more than just the robot,” he said. “The team is bigger than the robot; it’s about the friendships and life skills they get out of this. These kids will change the world.”
Mentors such as Bowersox and Culberg are treasured in the world of robotics.
According to Pam Garfield, coordinator for FIRST Nevada, the competition lost two Las Vegas-based high school teams this year due to mentor burnout.
In fact, in the past 14 years, 12 Las Vegas high school teams have stopped participating or dropped down to less expensive levels of FIRST Nevada such as FIRST Tech Challenge, which is for grades 7-12 and costs $1,000 on average, Garfield said.
“A school that doesn’t have support we can lose, which is frustrating for us because we don’t want to lose them,” she said. “We want these kids to be the future of Nevada, but they need to have the right support.”
Jennifer Stensrud, Cimarron-Memorial High School computer science teacher and robotics team mentor, said she knows the robotics team is fortunate to have a support staff of six.
“We’re lucky because most teams don’t have the coaching support, and people definitely get burned out,” she said.
The opportunities and skills that students get out of being on the robotics team are what keep Stensrud going.
“Some students who might not have graduated high school are going off to college, getting scholarships and internships,” she said. “It could have gone either way if we hadn’t picked them up.”
Contact Ann Friedman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-4588. Find her on Twitter: @AnnFriedmanRJ.