The most-winning team at Milwaukee’s Riverside University High School might be its robotics club. The Riverside RoboTigers qualified for world championships four of the last five years.
This weekend, the team is heading to Detroit to compete against thousands of other teenage engineers in the FIRST Robotics Championship.
At a recent regional competition in downtown Milwaukee’s UWM Panther Arena, the RoboTigers are wearing bright orange shirts and safety goggles as they prepare their robot for battle. Two students carry the robot to an outer-space-themed competition field.
The robot is about two feet tall, with six wheels around a square base and metal levers that control a basket at the top. Its main job is to carry rubber balls, called 'cargo,' from one side of the field to the other, and then fling them into a ‘cargo hold.’
Robots from three schools work together against another alliance of three – trying to score as many points as possible. The match lasts just three minutes.
"We won," junior Arianna Massey says after the match, which is one of several that day. "We did well with the cargo."
Massey is one of the four students on the drive team, which controls the robot during matches. She joined the RoboTigers as a freshman, after she saw a robot demonstration.
"I never saw something like that before," Massey says. "And I was already interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and building stuff. And the way it was all set up, it really intrigued me."
The RoboTigers are one of more than 3,000 high school teams that participate in the FIRST Robotics League. FIRST is an international youth organization that promotes engineering and technology.
"The first weekend in January there’s this big game release," says RoboTigers mentor Emily Ralph. "So the teams have no idea what the robot is supposed to do for the year until that weekend in January. From there you have six weeks to design and build your robot, so everything you see here was done in six weeks."
During that time, the RoboTigers meet every day after school and on Saturdays. There are 21 students on the team, according to head coach Chris Levas, who is an assistant principal at Riverside.
"It’s like a sport for the mind is what they say," Levas explains. "Kids get a chance to design, create, engineer, wire an entire competition robot."
Levas says the team started 11 years ago and has only gotten stronger.
"Other suburban schools and more affluent teams have been able to achieve that. But it’s kind of rare to see in an inner city district the kind of success that we’ve had," Levas says. "And the fact that we’re kind of building a robotics engineering dynasty at Riverside."
Like most MPS schools, Riverside is majority black and Hispanic, and 80 percent of students are economically disadvantaged. As Levas points out, that is not the reality for many of the teams the RoboTigers compete against.
Students on the team say it’s helped build their confidence. And the fact that they’ve won so many times doesn’t hurt. Yan Nang Soe is the son of Burmese refugees and is a senior at Riverside.
"I used to be a little bit introverted," Soe says. "But now I’m a little more extroverted, like going up to people, talking to people, and that has taught me a long way. And it’s helping me a lot networking-wise and just meeting new people."
Robotics sets many of the students on an engineering career path. The team is sponsored by companies like Rockwell Automation, which provides student internships.
Soe says his robotics experience got him a design internship at We Energies. He plans to attend UW-Milwaukee to study mechanical engineering.
"It’s gonna be a lot of school but it’s gonna be worth it in the end because I can come back and contribute or probably build the next robot that can do a lot of human stuff," Soe says.
The RoboTigers are so tight-knit, that Soe and his friends say once they graduate high school, they want to return as volunteer mentors for the team.
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