Photos courtesy of the Skyview StormBots

The Skyview High School StormBots’ sport is a high-octane competition where students design, create and control cutting-edge robots that race against the clock to complete challenges. The team sometimes hears certain things about what they do.

Some people think only programmers can participate, or that the team is only for students in the school’s Science, Math and Technology program. Or that there are no girls are on the team.

Those things are false.

For the truth, talk to Annika Epperly, a high school senior and four-year StormBots veteran. Yes, she programs the Storm X robot, the team’s most complex and ambitious bot to date. She also performs the high-stakes role of controlling the robot’s arms and elevators in competition to complete point-accruing tasks. But Epperly points to the different ways for students to be involved.

She explained, “A lot of people think that they need to be really good at math or really good at science to come be on the team, but there’s actually a lot of aspects of our team and FIRST, the program in general, that aren’t specifically engineering and programming. We have a marketing team, for example, that focuses on volunteer work and designs our T-shirts, so they get a lot of experience that isn’t just related to engineering.”

The team recently adopted a local park, where they will clean up litter.

Fellow StormBot Pranav Mulpuru fulfills another responsibility. His assignment to the scouting team means performing data analysis of other robotics teams. He assesses their performance to adjust the StormBots’ tactics or form strategic alliances with other teams to gain a competitive edge.

The variety of roles reflects the inclusive, respectful ethos of the FIRST program, an acronym that translates to For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. It also reflects the fact that the StormBots welcome students from all backgrounds.

Said Epperly, “It’s a really positive environment. The whole theme of FIRST is how to interact with people in both a competitive and a positive way. People make friends from other teams, and it’s a really fun place to be, a really accepting place to be.”

In fact, head coach Luke Glassett prides the team on its diversity: in age, gender, race, academic focus, interests.

That diversity is a strength for the team, as evidenced by their performance in April at the 2019 FIRST world championships in Houston, Texas. The StormBots’ alliance, which also included three other teams, finished in second place in the Carver subdivision.

For this former soccer coach, robotics is every bit as exciting and competitive as a well-executed set play. “I absolutely love it. It’s amazing,” said Glassett.

Volunteer mentor Paul Strebig, director of controls engineering at USNR, was similarly hooked on robotics when he first became involved six years ago. Back then his eldest daughter was on the team. Even though she has since graduated, Strebig returns to the StormBots to advise the next generation as part of a dedicated corps of mentors—professionals from some of the biggest local and national companies.

Said Strebig, “The [students are] getting real-life, hands-on experience. Not only are they designing, but they’re building and testing. More importantly they’re breaking and figuring out how to get it better and do it over multiple times. Also they have to work in a group atmosphere.”

That teamwork and its sibling, communication, are vital to the success of the team, said Mulpuru, who next year will captain the StormBots. “The most important thing is how to communicate with teams on the fly. You have to adapt as you go and deal with how people react.”

Those lessons have a long-term impact. Senior Kristen Stilin heads up the StormBots’ controls team and says that her four years with the StormBots led her to an internship last year and a good college where next year she will study mechanical engineering.

Said Stilin, “It’s helped me in pretty much every aspect of my life: my confidence, my future.”

To learn more about the StormBots, follow their progress or mentor the team, visit their website.