Desert Ridge robotics team again aims to conquer the world | News

By Jesse Brawders, Cronkite News
13 Min Read

Desert Ridge High School’s robotics teams are making a case for being among Arizona’s best.

For the second consecutive year, a Desert Ridge team was one of the two teams crowned state champ in the AIA Robotics State Championship.

 Desert Ridge last weekend hosted the competition, which involved over 50 schools, and the school’s 99067A Mechanical Jagwires, along with an independent team from Chandler, were dubbed state champs.

They and seven other teams – include Build Award winner 99067B Nano Jagwires from Desert Ridge – will be heading to Dallas, Texas, in late April to compete in the VEX Robotics World Championship, presented by the Northrop Grumman Foundation and the REC Foundation.

VEX is a robotics company owned by Innovation First, Inc., which organizes the worldwide competition, the largest of its kind.

Last year, the Nano Jagwires 99067B, was crowned state champ and finished in the top 16 in the world at the 2023 VEX Robotics World Championship.

There have always been various ways for students to compete during high school, and competitive robotics has emerged as part of the Arizona Interscholastic Association’s state tournaments, joining more familiar competitions like football and basketball.

The revolution has evolved worldwide since the inaugural VEX season in 2007, with more than 20,000 teams from around the world now competing against each other.

For Desert Ridge, everything happens in the back half of a traditional classroom after school, from programming and building to actually testing and competing with the creations of team members.

The front half of the classroom is what one would normally see in a math classroom, with formulas on the wall and plans for future lessons. The back of the room is filled with robotics equipment and a practice field with trophies and banners from previous years dressing the side and back walls.

Wendi Harden, head robotics coach and a Desert Ridge math and AVID teacher coordinated this year’s tournament and her son Kyler Harden, a student at Grand Canyon University and one of the teams’ mentors this year.

Kyler said the students work hard all year in an effort to reach the world tournament.

“They put in as much time as they can because they have to build the robots, which takes a large amount of time, and they sit there, test it, fine tune it,” Kyler said. “And then they have to also program autonomous, which is where the robot moves by itself.

“It can also be very time consuming to get those built and very consistent.”

Abhinav Jinka, who’s in his third year of the program and is again heading to Dallas, became more immersed in the scene when he started to talk to a teammate who has since graduated during their computer science class, where they would talk about strategies and discuss programming ideas.

Once Abhinav began digging deeper into robotics, he “almost became addicted to VEX.”

“I’d sit here for hours on end because I love doing it, and I’m passionate about it,” he said.

This robot won the Desert Ridge Mechanical Jagwires the state crown.

Desert Ridge has become one of the leaders in the state for robotics, with growing involvement and a successful track record.

Last year, the school’s top team, the Nano Jagwires 99067B, was crowned state champions and finished in the top 16 in the world at the 2023 VEX Robotics World Championship held in Dallas, Texas.

VEX competitions don’t just bring a different type of competition but also lead to future innovators, with 95% of participants reporting an increased interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subject areas and pursuing STEM-related careers, according to VEX.

Each year, the game mode changes completely, from the types of ways teams can score points to the style of endgame strategies. It creates a consistent challenge for teams to build a new robot from scratch, as well as create an entirely new game plan and a new program for the autonomous portion of the match.

For Desert Ridge, the back half of Wendi Harden’s classroom is the setting where each team’s robots are planned, programmed and created for that season’s competition. The room includes everything from the full-scale practice field in the back corner of the room to safe spaces to measure and cut metal. There are also toolboxes and 3D-printed battery holders with charger outlets.

AIA Robotics State Tournament

Judges watch, from left, Desert Ridge High School juniors Daniel Perez and Ryan Siegue and sophomore Hector Bolanos as they show off their robot at the AIA Robotics State Tournament.

Desert Ridge’s robotics program existed before its rise to one of the best schools in the state, but not in the same capacity. A former engineering teacher participated in VEX competitions with some of his students, but the team was uncompetitive due to working with only limited parts and missing key components such as aluminum and V-5 engines while using older steel.

Like many current VEX members, some of the Desert Ridge team members got into robotics by watching the show Battlebots, a robot combat competition that has circled through several TV networks since its first airing over two decades ago.

Wendi Harden got involved with the program when her daughter became a freshman at the school. Harden had been teaching for a few years in the school’s mathematics department at the time. 

“My daughter got involved, she wanted to be able to beat her brother,” Harden said. “So we needed to buy more parts, and I became more active. And then that’s kind of how it grew from there.”

Since taking the helm, the program has flourished into one of the best in the state, with three Jagwires (the high school’s mascot is Jaguars) squads finishing in the top 10 last year.

The enrollment has risen over the years, with Harden recruiting students from her classes who wanted to do more than join the program for fun.

Over 30 students from the Jagwires program, as well as local middle school students invited over by Hardin, meet up at Desert Ridge to work on robots and tinker with programming for upcoming competitions in the back of Harden’s classroom.

 “You get the excitement when you walk in and there’s teams everywhere, stickers everywhere, people talking in different languages,” Harden said.

Harden said it can be challenging to explain robotics competition to parents and set expectations, and added that parents “don’t have an understanding until they’re actually at an event.”

Despite the gap, parents still support their kids, going as far to provide a home for their kid’s robot over winter break and hosting teammates over to build robots.


Some of the champion Desert Ridge robotics team members put their creation through its paces at the March 9 AIA state competition, which the Gilbert Public Schools high school hosted.

“Parents will come and just sit there and ask the kids, ‘Can we go home yet?’ And their kids are like, ‘No, mom, just one more thing. No, we don’t have the autonomous right. Just one more time,’” Harden said, adding: “Don’t get upset when your kid doesn’t get home until 10 o’clock on a Friday night. They are sitting in my room building robots.”

Many small and specific rules can make it difficult for parents to follow the games. The most common question is why the team can’t pick its partners for the entire event.

VEX commentator Keegan Ohta – who has covered VEX events since 2017 in Hawaii, and has been a part of the world championship broadcasts for a few years – explained that teams don’t typically know their randomly assigned teammate until a day before at the absolute earliest, which can make it tricky to come up with strategies with partners for the event quickly.

The challenge is only amplified for the world championships, where the best teams from more than 10,000 teams and 40 countries come together for one of the largest competitions in robotics.

With teams traveling from around the globe, a language barrier adds another impactful layer. Teams often use Google Translate to discuss strategies with their partners during matches.

Ohta described robotics as the teams “putting thoughts into robots,” rather than thoughts onto a paper, something that shines when teams create unique robots and functions that stump enemy teams.

The best word to describe competitive robots that Ohta shared was “coopertition,” with teams having to work with given teammates while also competing to be the best team in the world.

The growth and success of the program hasn’t stopped Harden from trying to help surrounding schools build their own robotics teams.

Desert Ridge has started mentoring local middle school students who are interested in robotics by having them build and program robots in the same room as the high school students. This way, the middle school students can ask any building and programming-related questions and seek assistance in safely cutting metal pieces.

“It’s not only about going and experiencing it ourselves, it’s about helping others get a path there too,” Harden said.

Harden’s rough budget for the program each year is around $10,000, which is all fundraised by the program through events such as car washes. Some of the top teams in the world can spend upwards of $30,000 each year on their robots, a financial risk that does not always pay dividends.

Abhinav is among the Desert Ridge students preparing for “the worlds.” He will be joined by Hector Bolanos, Ryan Siegue, Tatum Scott, Rebecca Rappleye, Jackson Brinkerhoff,  Carlos Yubeta, Anneliese Yubeta,  Zachary McManis, Daniel Perez, Trishan De La Torre, Nicholas Sheaters, Margarito Roman, Parker Scott, William Buckner and Parker Wakefield.

The Gilbert Sun News contributed to this report. 

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By Jesse Brawders, Cronkite News , – Vivrr Local Results in news of type article , 2024-03-19 07:00:00
Tags: desert ridge high school, desert ridge high school robotics, desert ridge high school news, aia robotics state championship, arizona robotics

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