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Local Robotics Team a Dynamic Machine

Some kids play football. Others march in a drumline or live out their own version of “High School Musical.” Then there are the local students affixing telescopic arms and servo motors to 125-pound robots.

Team 980 ThunderBots, the robotics team based at Burbank High School but open to all eighth- through 12th-graders in the local school district, doesn’t just train students in high-level robotics. It also gives many students a chance to gain confidence in public speaking, business skills or sometimes just a place to belong.

The team competed in the 2024 FIRST Robotics Championship, an international competition in Houston, alongside 600 teams from across the world from April 17-20. FIRST, which stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, seeks to advance education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Making it to the championship is no small feat. The last time the ThunderBots made their way to Nationals was 2018.

This year, the ThunderBots qualified for the FIRST Championship after being part of a winning alliance in the regional contest, following a fierce competition season that saw 11th-hour repairs and redesigns.

The program is completely student-led, said Team 980 mentor Robin Dorfman. Students of all skill levels enter the program, and they leave with real-world experience in programming, electronics, machining, construction, mechanical design, business practices, and outreach. 

“Year after year, I watch a kid go from not knowing which way to turn a screwdriver go on to an engineering career in college,” Dorfman told the Leader.

Partnering with the Burbank Unified School District National Academies Foundation, Team 980 is located in the STEAM lab at Burbank High, welcoming students from Burroughs as well the middle schools’ eighth-graders.

“Any students with the passion to learn, a drive to create and a competitive spirit are encouraged to join,” said Dorfman.

While joining robotics equips students with the technical and design knowledge to build robots, students also learn about outreach and fundraising, as they must secure sponsors and partnerships to help fund their projects.

The competition season is intense and designed to instill students with real-world engineering problem-solving skills. The scope of the game is different each year.

“We have no idea what the game is going to look like, what the field elements are going to look like, what the game pieces are going to look like, what we’re going to be asked to do in the game,” Dorfman said.

From the first Saturday after New Year’s Day, the ThunderBots get only two months to design, build and test their robot before the competition season starts. Then teams are paired up with other schools, and the best bots make it to the FIRST Championship in Houston.

At that tournament, teams are randomly placed into divisions made up of about 75 teams and the the competition is gradually narrowed down ahead of the final round. Though the ThunderBots did not advance to the final round of the championship weekend, the team was grateful for the opportunity to participate and to meet with and learn from other students interested in robotics.

“These teams are so valuable for the students,” Dorfman said. “What students are creating and what they walk away with is so formative to their high school and future professional careers. It’s a huge benefit to the community.”

Beyond programming and engineering skills, Dorfman said, the program instills confidence in students who haven’t been given a chance to shine.

Some students enter the program already knowing how to code, and they are able to use the program as a steppingstone to college. Then there are the students who have been overlooked. 

“Some students come in and they’re very shy or haven’t had a chance to make friends,” Dorfman said. “They work with the team. They’re being given a part in this bigger project. By the end of their time with the team, they develop a skill set into real-life confidence. It’s wonderful to see them blossom.”

Brian Di Mascio graduated from the robotics program in 2019. Recently, he and his undergraduate team at the Naval Academy planned, built and operated a robotic arm currently aboard the Microgravity Science Glovebox within the Destiny module on the International Space Station.

“I cannot stress enough that what I learned while on Team 980 has been able to provide some incredible opportunities that I would not have, had it not been for the work and care of the parents, mentors, and other students,” Di Mascio said. “The skills I learned through [First Robotics Competition] apply every day, both the technical and the soft skills.”

Di Mascio learned a suite of skills through the FRC program. He said his time as a robot driver during his senior year gave him the experience to stand out as an operator with the Naval Academy group.

He said that Team 980 uses many of the wiring and construction techniques that he learned as a college freshman and sophomore, as well as motors like those on the project currently in orbit.

“It was manufactured before I got here, so it was the FRC fabrication experience that helped me to understand how this thing worked quickly,” Di Mascio said.

In fact, Di Mascio and his family found the program so valuable that they fought to get Team 980 into Burbank High School when the team faced extinction during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“FRC is such an incredible program, and I am still so proud to have been a part of this team. It will open so many doors,” Di Mascio said.

First published in the May 18 print issue of the Burbank Leader.

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