The Liberty High School robotics team, also known as the Iron Patriots FRC 4131, had an award-filled season unlike any other in the team’s history. But equal to those achievements and the performance of their robot, was the outreach work they did to spread knowledge about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), the work they did to give back to the community, and the friendships the team members cemented.
“This was certainly the best robot we’ve ever made as a team – in many aspects – from ability to play the game and precise manufacturing, to efficient software automation and reliability in matches,” said Carson Taylor, a senior and current Head of Design for the team. “Not only did the robot perform perfectly in each of our 14 matches (even the best team there died twice on the field), but we also fought through the least favorable match schedule.”
The Iron Patriots were the only team in the Pacific Northwest to win both the FIRST Impact Award and also the Engineering Inspiration Award at district competitions. They also were awarded the “Innovation in Control” award at a district match. In the next level of competition, the Pacific Northwest District Championships, the Patriots’ robot scored third highest out of 50 teams competing, proceeding to the semifinals and winning the Regional Impact Award. This honor is given to two teams, and helped qualify Liberty for the FIRST Robotics World Championship in Houston, Texas.
The competition for the Impact Award is judged in two parts: an essay and a presentation. In the essay portion, teams share statistics and information; then, in their presentation, they highlight some of the information from the essay, answer any questions that the judges have and demonstrate their passion.
“The Iron Patriots are doing more than building robots - we're forging a community through STEM. Through our multitude of FIRST programs, emphasis on inclusion, and extensive outreach efforts, we have made an unprecedented and continual impact on our community,” the team members wrote in their essay. They share that the Iron Patriots have started 86 FIRST Lego League teams at 20 schools, directly mentored 38 teams and assisted another 28. The essay goes on to list their efforts during the pandemic, developing introductory robotics curriculum, created Liberty High School’s first Unified Robotics team in partnership with the Special Olympics, created initiatives to encourage and create safe spaces for women, non-binary and transgender students to participate in robotics, automation and STEM, and more.
During the World Championships at the end of April, the Iron Patriots were finalists in their division, placing second to the winning alliance.
What’s next for these teammates? If you guessed Disneyland, good try – but their next event could prove to be nearly as fun and will also be filled with excited children. They’re teaching 30 sessions of in-person STEM summer camps, hosted by the Liberty High School Booster Club in partnership with the City of Issaquah. These camps will not only help raise funds for the team, but will allow them to share their love and knowledge of robotics with students from throughout the area. Spending a summer teaching robotics to younger students may sound like a lot of hard work, but that’s something the Iron Patriots are no strangers to – building a robot typically takes thousands of hours of work from students and mentors, Taylor said.
Fellow senior Casey Frantz, Head of Hardware for the team, emphasized that being part of a robotics team like the Iron Patriots has many facets. “I would love to let the community know that FIRST robotics isn’t just about building a robot and competing. It’s also about being able to give back to our communities and trying to get more people into this program to learn more about STEM,” Frantz said. “I also want to stress that robotics is more than STEM. It allows for other great positions for media work, like producing ‘robot reveal’ videos, website design, and overall making our team nicely presentable.”
He also noted that prior experience isn’t required. “I discovered our school's robotics club during my freshman year through the club fair that our school hosts. I had zero knowledge of the FIRST robotics program before I joined and I'm extremely glad I came across this gem of a program,” Frantz said.
The team’s mentor, Tod Oney, who is also a graduation specialist at Liberty, said he feels so fortunate to have had the chance to work with Liberty robotic students, including Unified Robotics, FTC (FIRST Tech Challenge) robotics and FRC (First Robotics Competition) robotics.
“We started off as a small group of students wanting to make a robot (now 5) to compete. That was not enough for these Liberty students and throughout the years their desire to expand STEM has been amazing,” Oney said. “They go to school science/STEM fairs, community summer lunch programs, Boeing Days, Seafair – you name it, and Liberty students are there encouraging everyone to be part of STEM.” He noted that while attending the Houston competition, team members met with other teams from Australia, Canada and the United States to promote Unified Robotics for intellectually/developmentally disabled students.
“These Liberty Robotic students are amazing,” he added.
Let’s hear from a few other Iron Patriot team members:
Junior Megan Le, team Treasurer: “I’m proudest of our robot. I’ve seen the mistakes and lessons we’ve learned with our robots in past years, and for all this knowledge to all finally come together to create an incredible robot has made me super happy. … Robotics is a place where you can meet so many interesting people and perspectives. Robotics is what enabled me to leave my comfort zone and become a lot more outgoing.”
Senior Vachan Shah, team President: “I actually first joined robotics because my parents really wanted me to do a club in high school and wanted me to do something that I'd been interested in as a kid, but the reason I stayed in robotics is because of the instant group of friends that made every single meeting feel like the most fun I ever had. This new group of friends that I now even consider a big family adopted me right as I joined, and it helped me learn more about myself while having a lot of fun and doing something that teaches me lots of useful skills that are going to help me throughout my life.”
Sophomore Rachel Kollarmalil, team Head of Media: “I first got into robotics when I attended FRC 4131’s WOWS (Wonders of Women in STEM) camp. I was so amazed by the big machines and the really cool robot, and I decided that when i got into high school, I would join that team.”
Junior Jun Malit, team Head of Software: “I got into robotics the summer after freshman year because I've always been interested in programming. My sister first introduced me to the program and I was overjoyed to get to share that experience with her. … Involvement in robotics never ends in high school. Personally, I know a handful of robotics alumni whose lives were transformed by their involvement in robotics, and they continue to be active in robotics communities today. The program pulls students in, and students never let go of these valuable experiences.”
Above, the team at the Pacific Northwest District Competition. Below, this year's Iron Patriots robot, holding a cube and starting configuration before the 15-second autonomous period, during which robots must score points only relying on pre-programmed code.