WEST VALLEY CITY — Building a prototype robot from the ground up is a challenging endeavor for just about any group of high school students. But add to it the complexity of learning working in a non-native language with students from different cultures while competing against more than 1,000 other brainiacs, and you have the aptly named Cottonwood High Underdogs.
The team is made up of 14 students from numerous countries — all but one of whom are refugees from countries including Brazil, Haiti, Iraq, Myanmar, Nepal, and Somalia, among others. Many have been in the United States a relatively short time and joined the robotics team as a way to meet new people and discover more about the world of technology.
"I decided to join to be part of a team and become a good leader for them," said team captain Abdul Bari Ayubi, whose family came to America from Kabul, Afghanistan, last year. He aspires to be a doctor one day, and said being involved with technology is enlightening.
“Each day we learn something and we all come together as a team,” he said. "We should always learn new skills."
He said the competition is particularly helpful to immigrant and refugee students because they don't have such programs in their native countries. He also believes the program helps students develop leadership skills.
"Being a leader is not easy," he said. "It's a difficult job. But when I became a leader here, I improved my communication skills and it helped me learn to communicate with everybody."
Team member Sadam Alsabsabe, 16, immigrated from Syria three years ago with his family speaking and understanding very little English. He said joining the robotics team gave him a chance to pursue a passion for engineering.
"I love building stuff," he said. "I like hardware engineering and I would love to be a hardware engineer when I grow up."
Regarding his experience with the team, he said having fun is important during competition, even when it gets hard.
"I really, really challenge myself when I'm here," he said. Back in Syria, education wasn't a major priority, he explained, but since moving to America he has taken a different attitude about school.
While being in the competition has been enjoyable, the involvement with the team has been the most rewarding part of the experience.
"Trying our best is the most fun," Alsabsabe said. "Challenging ourselves to make new components and compete, that's the thing I care the most about."
The Underdogs are one of 50 high school teams competing at the annual FIRST Robotics Competition Utah Regional, held at the Maverik Center in West Valley. The two-day event — co-organized with the University of Utah’s College of Engineering — is free and open to the public and includes teams from as far away as Mexico and China, explained Chelsey Short, FIRST Robotics regional director.
Founded in 1989 by Segway inventor and noted entrepreneur Dean Kamen, FIRST — For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology — was created "to inspire young people's interest and participation in science and technology," according to the firstinspires.org website.
The Underdogs received a $6,000 scholarship from Utah FIRST Robotics to help them with their inaugural robot project, and they were mentored by a student team from the Academy for Math, Engineering & Science — or AMES, a charter school located near Cottonwood High School.
Students on the team came to America to seek better opportunities for themselves and their families, explained coach Yuri Perez, a math and science teacher for the English as a second language program at Cottonwood High. They all work hard to be part of the team, he said, which also offers various residual benefits.
“Their vocabulary has increased. Their confidence has increased,” he said. “It has helped them develop their skills and to express their ideas because they are working as a team.”
He also said the students have learned to overcome unexpected difficulties and recognize their ability to excel when meeting challenges, something they may never have thought possible in their respective homelands.
"I don't think at one point in their lives they thought they (would) be in a tournament with this level of sophistication and being able to compete one-to-one," Perez said. "Now they see that they can do things that they didn't think about (before)."
This year’s game, called “Destination: Deep Space,” involves teams designing and building robots that collect “planetary samples,” which they store in cargo pods using robots either operated autonomously by computer code or guided with a video system manually, a news release stated.
“Students achieve things that seemed unimaginable to them — whether it is designing and programming a climbing robot, a robot manipulator or a computer vision algorithm for autonomous driving,” said Mark Minor, associate professor of mechanical engineering at the U. and event chairman for the competition. “Students learn to invent, communicate and become leaders. They thrive in college, start their own companies and become the next generation of innovators.”