AACAL Invited to World Robotics Event

AACAL Team Invited to Compete in World Robotics Championships
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Time and budget challenges short-circuit opportunity
April 22, 2016
-- When Jay Barrett stepped into an engineering classroom eight years ago as the new principal of Amarillo ISD’s specialty school, the Amarillo Area Center for Advanced Learning (AACAL), he saw something eye-opening. “I saw kids mapping out plans on a board, working with each other, talking through whether they should use this kind of apparatus or different kinds of wheels,” he says. “You kind of become an engineering evangelist when you see what it and robotics can do for kids, because it truly activates brain power in no other way that I’ve ever seen.”

Since then, Jay has been a man on a mission, throwing his full support into AACAL robotics, beginning with coaxing the program toward FIRST Robotics, a more robust competition system than the one they’d previously been competing in. They became the Atomic Armadillos and what erupted from the team’s move to FIRST Robotics was much more than its nuclear name. The Armadillos have climbed the ranks of the competition circuit each year, aiming for the ultimate goal of an invitation to the holy grail of robotics competitions—the FIRST Championship—dubbed the ‘world championship’ of robotics. “Absolutely the whole idea is to go as far as we could go,” says Jay, who attends as many of the Armadillos’ competitions as he can each year.

In March, Jay followed the team to San Antonio for their first shot at snagging a bid to that coveted world competition. “We didn’t do so well, so they went back to drawing board and worked on their design.” Two weeks later from a training seminar in New Mexico, Jay watched the team’s scores online, in real time, as they competed in Lubbock, their final shot at qualifying this year. The team finished seventh, but lost in the the semifinals. With the competition season behind them and a bid to worlds off the table, Jay and the team shook off the tough loss. “We didn’t qualify, so we kind of went into the mode of it’s over so let’s start thinking about next year,” says he says. “We never thought we would need to plan to go to worlds this year because we hadn’t qualified.”

Then, last week, came the call that changed everything. With just one week until worlds, another team unexpectedly dropped out of the FIRST Championships, scheduled for April 27-30 in St. Louis. Next in line for a spot to compete, the Armadillos were invited to take their place. As the initial excitement of staff and students quelled, the reality of what would be demanded of the school district in order for the team to compete at the world event set in. The Atomic Armadillos had just 24 hours to come up with the competition’s $5,000 entry fee. “We looked at budgets and tried to come up with the money. The kids tried to raise the money, but we needed the funds in hand that day,” says Jay. “Plus, there are certain policies in place for how we transport students—you’ve got to have a third party vehicle, so with travel and food, we were looking at estimated costs of $18,000 to $20,000.” Because of legal liability issues and limitations on insurance coverage, AISD does not allow students to be transported in personal vehicles or rental vehicles on out-of-state trips.  Instead, schools have to use third party transportation providers, like charter bus companies, who bear the liability if an accident were to occur. 
AACAL Atomic Armadillos

To fund things like charter buses, other travel expenses, meals, competition fees and other needs, AACAL programs are each doled an equal amount of money from the District’s career and technical education department. For the robotics program, in addition to District money, a $20,000 grant from Pantex funded the opportunity for the Atomic Armadillos and Caprock’s robotics team, the C-Rock Botz, to compete in two regional events for the first time, giving them each two chances to qualify for worlds.

With the program’s budget exhausted by the previous competitions, Jay says he didn’t feel comfortable committing to a non-refundable $5,000 entry fee if he wasn’t confident the additional costs of the trip could be raised with the event just a week away. It was a tough call and Jay took the hit as hard as anyone. “When I realized we couldn’t go, I was very disappointed. We were finally going to see the world championships we’ve heard about for the last four years,” he says.

Once again, Jay finds himself and AACAL’s resilient Atomic Armadillos looking ahead to next season. “I‘ve tried to think about this as, what kind of lesson can we learn? Sometimes when the answer is no, you’ve got to be satisfied with no when you’ve done everything you could and exhausted all avenues. What we can do is get a step ahead and start fundraising now for next year,” says Jay, as invested in ever, and still drawn to the sport of robotics nearly a decade after he first walked into that engineering classroom. What Jay saw then is what he now sees on the competition floor. “It’s great to witness the pride that comes with watching those kids see what they have created. I’ve never seen that look on a student’s face when they’ve taken a 50 question paper and pen test. It’s just magic.”

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