PCHS robotics program flourishes
Engineering isn’t always about building bridges or skyscrapers or creating the next technology that will transform the 21st century.
For dozens of students at Park City High School, engineering is about solving a much smaller-scale problem — they dream up, then create sophisticated robots designed to compete in competitions and perform tasks better than robots from opposing teams.
"It’s the hardest fun you’ll ever have," said Sheri Prucka, who coaches the PCHS robotics program. "It makes you realize just how much fun careers in engineering can be."
Students at Park City High are apparently coming to that realization in droves, as the robotics program is flourishing. About 15 students were participating at this time last year, Prucka said. This year, more than 60 students are active, and the program is set to send several teams to the Utah State FIRST Tech Challenge on Feb. 20 at Weber State University.
"It’s really grown," Prucka said. "A lot of that is thanks to the high school giving us space. It makes it so easy for the students to come in and spend time here. They’ve given us lab space and a machine shop that has enabled the students to build some really creative designs."
Florent Astié, a senior and a veteran of the robotics program, said it’s been gratifying to be a part of the growth. The program is a far cry from what it looked like when he joined several years ago, when participation was scarce and not many knew about how exciting robotics can be.
"There’s really no comparison, even with last year," he said. "We have so much more resources and members. And that’s made it way, way more fun."
Added Grant Gabrielson, another student involved in robotics: "It’s really fun to see the growth in it. To see something start out small and grow into something massive that about one in every 20 kids in the school is into is really cool to see."
Much of the program’s success can be attributed to members like Astié and Gabrielson, Prucka said. They have worked tirelessly to let other students — both at PCHS and the lower schools — know about robotics and the benefits of participating. Those efforts already are bearing fruit, and Prucka is hopeful they will pay even more dividends in the future and younger students become involved.
"The students do a great job of letting people know about what it is that they’re doing," she said. "They’ve been mentoring other teams in other places and hopefully developing a feeder system that will bring more kids in here. It’s been an excellent year that way. Students are all over, spreading the word and letting people know about how much fun engineering is."
Student Andrew Stuckers has long been interested in engineering but is new to the program this year. To him, it’s a chance to learn and get hands-on experience while also having a fun.
"It’s helped me get a lot better at engineering," he said. "It’s just been a lot of fun. I’ve always just been into this because it’s science, and it moves, and it’s cool. Ever since I started doing Lego robotics just a few years ago, I wanted to keep going and make things that are cooler and bigger. I just love the excitement of it."
In addition to having stronger participation, the program is performing better in competitions. At a recent FIRST Tech Challenge in Bozeman, Montana, PCHS’s Robominers — the program’s flagship team — received the Inspire Award for being a strong ambassador for FIRST programs, and also punched its ticket to the FIRST Tech Challenge West Super-Regional Championship in Oakland in March. Additionally, the Ladybots, an all-girl team, won an award for ingenuity and inventiveness.
To Prucka, the success is validation for the hard work the program’s members put in throughout the year. She said everyone spends at least six hours a week on robotics, while the most dedicated devote as much as 20 hours a week on designing and perfecting their robots. Those efforts will pay off in more ways than winning competitions, she said.
"It’s so rewarding and so exciting to see that these students are going to be able to go wherever they want to study (in college)," she said. "They’re going to be the engineers of the future. They are going to be well-prepared for that. It’s good for Park City, it’s good for the world to have so many talented students coming out. This is a smart group of kids."
And as Prucka sees it, this could be just the beginning.
"We hope the program continues to grow," she said. "Certainly, there’s a legacy that these teams are leaving. Students are serving as mentors for other students, and I think we will only see greater growth. It should be very exciting."
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