A trip to Denver for a regional championship not only provided 40 students and six adults with the chance to showcase their talents, but the chance to become a family.
A meeting with the drivers and department heads of the Franklin Junior/Senior High School BEST Robotics Team two weeks after their return from the Midwest – and an unprecedented placing of 13th out of 40 teams – was like stepping into a room full of siblings.
The teens, ranging from ages 14 to 18, draped over one another and could barely contain their excitement over what they’d learned from the experience.
The picture stood in stark contrast from when they were interviewed in October, just before they were set to embark on a trip to Grove City for the regional competition.
At that time, there was a sense of kinship and teamwork, but each department had a way of setting itself apart from the other.
Gordon Cowels, one of the team’s staff advisers, said he believed the relationship didn’t begin until the team left for their flight to Denver on Dec. 6.
“I don’t really think it happened until we went to Denver,” Cowels said smiling at the antics of a few students in the corner of the room. “They were – and still are – like family.”
The students aren’t shy to share their opinion of this newfound bond.
“We have a family tree,” freshman Izzy Ramfos said.
Through the laughter of the assembled group, freshman Carlito Motter said that when the year began he “knew maybe four people out of the entire team.”
“Now I talk to all of them,” he said.
Denver threw many variables at the team. Most were expected, but some weren’t related to the competition.
“Twenty-five of the 40 students had never flown before,” Cowels said.
Adviser Renee Miller, who has been with the team since its inception four years ago, said it was adversity that made students “come out of the woodwork” to be there for one another.
“Braden (Reagle) made sure he was the last one off each flight, made sure everyone was OK and that we had everyone,” Miller said.
Reagle, the 16-year-old CEO of the group, showed aptitude for his place on the family tree.
“As the CEO, I was able to have kind of personal experiences with everyone …I know that they all have a very bright future because of the abilities I’ve seen them portray,” Reagle said. “I am very proud of all of them, and I respect all of them.”
That’s not to say the students weren’t intimidated when faced with robots from larger – some even dedicated STEM – schools.
Erin Janidlo, a junior, said seeing some of the robots, how they moved more fluidly or had “pretty” exteriors was enough to put fear into all of team members, but smiled when she said, “but we beat them.”
“They were like cats, you know when they puff up against each other to make themselves seem bigger. It was all for show,” junior Garrett Kingdom said.
The bonds the team have been able to forge are expected to grow when the program is given a full year in next school year’s schedule, as opposed to the half-year the students had to work with this year.
“Only three (students) are leaving, too, so we’ll all be together,” Ramfos said.
Miller, who began the program with only 11 students in a space in the back of her classroom she described as a tornado, said next year the class will begin to raise funds for traveling from the start of the year.
“I think we impressed a lot of people this year, we were consistently in the bottom four (at the Grove City competition) there were some impressive-looking robots, but we beat them,” she said.
Cowels said the team can only get better with age and have the numbers to prove it.
“Our average points at Grove City was around 160; in Denver, they were over 500,” he said.