On February 23, St. Mary’s (SMIS) first ever Varsity Robotics team traveled to the Christian Academy in Japan (CAJ). This marked their debut at the Japanese Vex Nationals. Under the skillful leadership of Captain and President Aaryan Batra, and Officers Taewon Yoon, Saurav Modi, Yungi Jeong, and Vinayak Khurana, the three teams ended their season outstandingly; two of the teams placed in the Quarter Finals, and SMIS as a whole placed fourth.

    Beyond the feat of ranking nationally at a fierce tournament of 17 teams, it is especially notable that this is the first ever Student Led Varsity team in SMIS history. Four years, ago a group of seniors started experimenting with Robotics at St. Mary’s. However, it wasn’t until much later Sophomore, Aaryan Batra founded the school’s first Competitive HS Robotics Team in 2017 and built a sustainable program by establishing a Varsity, as well as a Junior Varsity (JV) team. With the guidance of the club’s expert adviser, Dr. Bowring, Aaryan instituted a form of organized leadership and rigorous practice schedules—mentoring newcomers and focusing the team on competing in the nationals.

    The Varsity teams compete annually at the Japanese Vex Nationals. The competition is structured interestingly. Each team has the opportunity to compete in three Autonomous skills tests (based on the code programmed into the robots), three drivers skill tests, and multiple field rounds (where teams work cooperatively to score the maximum number of points). At this year’s Vex Nationals, there were several ways to score points. These included: flipping caps scattered across the field, aiming picked up balls at flags of different heights, and battling to get on free-for-all platforms where ‘aggression’ was to be expected. These tasks may seem simple at first, but when there are three other robots trying to do the exact same things countering your own scored points all in the span of two minutes, matches tend to become quite stressful and complex strategy is needed to win.

    When asked about his goals for the teams, Aaryan said, “Our first and foremost goal is to make SMIS a powerhouse not just for sports like Wrestling and Fine Arts like Choir, but also the ‘nerdier’ things like Robotics and things related to technology and engineering. ASIJ and CAJ have dominated the field of Competitive Robotics for the past decade. We’re hoping to begin some real change here.” Varsity Robotics is well on its way to revolutionizing Competitive Robotics. Conjointly, the team has logged over 1,472 combined out-of-school man hours over the course of the first semester, coming during their summer and winter breaks and almost everyday in their mornings, lunches, and afternoons building until 6 PM. It is clear that the team has already demonstrated their unparalleled dedication. To that end, this sort of perseverance is especially impressive due to the nature of Robotics. Such a Fine Art is multifaceted in the sense that it is both an emotional and frustrating experience. Each and every decision a builder, or programmer, makes irrefutably leads to a butterfly effect, compounding to increasingly growing problems. If something is built incorrectly, builders have to tear it all apart. Robots are built up layer by layer, so even the slightest mistake could snowball into a never-ending thread of re-building. The design cycle is heavily prominent in such an activity. Put simply, Robotics is like architecture. There is lots of structured planning, sketching, and brainstorming, but in a sense it is also like gardening. Teams build rather aimlessly, and overtime their efforts come to fruition.

    The team’s investment into the relatively obscure realm of Robotics was carried forward on the day of the competition. Team officer, Taewon Yoon, said, 

When we walked into CAJ’s gym that Saturday morning we were surprised in what we saw. Competitive Robotics lived up to its name, it was eerily similar to what you’d see at a sports tournament: judges and referees, multiple playing fields, aggressive opponents, team colors and banners and yet there was a sort of uniqueness to it: The ‘players’ on the field were robots, and ‘injuries’ were treated with screwdrivers and spanners. 

For a first timer team walking into a competition where teams like ASIJ, CAJ, BST have decades of competitive robotics experience, the team exceeded their own expectations. Team Captain and President, Aaryan Batra was joyful after the tournament: 

This competition was really helpful in making us aware of our shortcomings and giving us the opportunities to capitalize on what we had built. Now it’s back to the practice room to draw up new strategies and practice like crazy for our next competition. We are hoping to qualify for the internationals in November.

    While the teams performed exceptionally as a collective, there were certain key players that were outstanding in their performances. Taewon Yoon’s unparalleled building helped him take home the award of Varsity Robotics’ ‘Best Engineer’. Yungi Jeong’s meticulous coding landed him the award of ‘Best Programmer’. Lastly, Koremitsu Adachi’s unwavering work-ethic landed him the ‘Most-Dedicated’ award.

At the very beginning, the Robotics program at St. Mary’s was like any other club, relatively insignificant within the St. Mary’s community. However, the integration of tournaments, talent selectivity, and community support is leading the club to parity within the St. Mary’s Fine Arts extracurricular activities.

Article by Felipe Chertouh, Co-authored by Aaryan Batra