High school team mentored by Grainger Engineers wins robotics championship


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The Ctrl-Z team and mentors celebrating their world championship win in Houston. Photo credit: FIRST.
Champaign-Urbana area high school students win the 2023 FIRST world robotics championship
The team was mentored by UIUC engineering students.

In April, a team of 8th to 12th grade students from the Champaign-Urbana area went to Houston, Texas to compete in the world finals of the 2023 FIRST Robotics Competition—and came home as world champions. 

On their way to triumph, the team, called Ctrl-Z, first had to design and build a robot, distinguish itself in regional tournaments, and fight its way through setbacks that included damage to their robot during a collision. How did they do it? A lot of hard work, long hours, ingenuity, and determination—plus the guidance of an enthusiastic team of UIUC mentors.

FIRST is a nonprofit that promotes youth interest in STEM. Since 1992, it has held the annual FIRST Robotics Competition, which now attracts thousands of teams from dozens of countries. Each January, FIRST announces the tasks that robots will need to perform during that year’s competitive season. Teams have only about six weeks to build a robot before they start competing in local and regional events that culminate in the world championship.

Ctrl-Z, which was founded in 2011, dealt with that tight timeline with an intense schedule: they met three hours per evening, six days a week, until the robot was ready. “It’s a commitment,” noted Marlow Tracy, a now-graduated[JA1] Uni High School student who has participated in Ctrl-Z for five years.

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Building the 2023 Ctrl-Z robot, from left: Marlow Tracy (Uni High senior), Nourseen Ismail (Urbana High junior), Samhita Gubba (Central High freshman), Nia Bolton (Centennial High freshman), and Lisa Tsou (Urbana Middle School 8th grader). Photo: Michal Ondrejcek.

In 2023, that commitment paid off in grand style. First, at the Central Illinois Regional tournament in Peoria, Ctrl-Z was part of an alliance that won first place in the playoffs following an undefeated run, even after the robot tipped over in a qualification match. Days later, at the Iowa Regional in Cedar Falls, the team not only competed well but won the Regional FIRST Impact Award in recognition of its impact on participants, schools, and community through promotion of STEM.

The Impact Awards are “the highest award in FIRST for team outreach,” explained Miles Bimrose, who is a UIUC graduate student in Mechanical Science & Engineering and one of Ctrl-Z’s mentors. “That’s one of our goals, is to be a team that builds a STEM community here in Champaign.”

While the Ctrl-Z team members were confident in their robot’s abilities, they were initially excited simply to make it to the world championships in Houston. Early in the world competition, they suffered some setbacks, including the disabling of a wheel in a qualification match. However, the team acted decisively to recover from those setbacks, and their strong work didn’t go unnoticed: in a playoff alliance selection draft, they were chosen to participate as one of four teams in the top-seeded alliance led by the team MadTown Robotics from California, alongside Californian team HighTide and Canadian team BeaverworX.

Bimrose later recalled how Ctrl-Z’s first strategic meeting with its alliance partners changed the team’s competitive mindset. “I think after that first conversation, it was like, okay, we can’t just be happy that we’re here. We’re here to win it all,” he said. “So we all kind of locked in, and knew, alright, we’re taking this one match at a time, and we’re just going to see how far we go.”

“That pressure, I thought it would get to us more; but our students were super calm and collected,” added Bimrose. “I think I was probably more nervous than them!”

In the first match of the playoffs, the alliance set a new world record of 216 points—only to break their own record in the second round, with 217 points. 

The team then prevailed despite multiple near-disasters in the early rounds of the Championship finals, including a bad fall of the robot off a charging station and a series of collisions that left the robot’s arm stuck pointing straight up. 

The final round of competition proved to be a nail-biter, with Ctrl-Z’s four-team “red alliance” and the opposing “blue alliance” both scoring points at such a furious pace that the judges couldn’t tally up the scores in real time. After the final buzzer sounded, the scores on the scoreboard continued to climb, and for several long seconds, the top score went back and forth between the two alliances.

Aiden Kim, who has just completed his first season with Ctrl-Z and his sophomore year at Champaign’s Central High School, described the emotions of the team as they waited for the final outcome. At first, “we thought we lost... because at the end the blue team’s score was higher.” But the points kept coming. “Then we were just waiting, screaming at one another, and then right when the red alliance won, the banner showed—it was crazy.”

Marlow Tracy agreed. “Yeah, it was pretty crazy. I mean, I’ve been with this team for a long time. And I didn’t even know if we were going to get to go to worlds at all this year, let alone win the whole thing. Like that’s just kind of insane to me,” she said. “And I think even after the banner showed, it was a little bit hard to believe. But also I was so proud of what the team has become, and the fact that we were able to achieve that.”

This competitive season was Miles Bimrose’s tenth in FIRST, since he was on his high school’s FIRST team and has mentored FIRST teams since he was an undergraduate at Notre Dame. Looking back, he’s grateful for the program’s impact on him. “It really inspired me to be an engineer,” he said. “It was really the thing that clicked that switch, that ‘this is something I want to have as a career and a passion.’ So I want to continue to help students find that.” 

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Current and former UIUC Ctrl-Z mentors celebrate the championship win in Houston. From left: Vasista Vovveti, Robert Stavins, former mentor Zachary Hoegberg, Miles Bimrose, former mentor William Doherty, Sarah Wilson. Photo: Michal Ondrejcek.

The 2023 Ctrl-Z team consisted of 39 middle school and high school students from nine schools in and around Champaign-Urbana. It is officially a 4-H group supported by the University of Illinois Extension. The UIUC technical mentors all serve on an informal basis. 

In addition to Bimrose, the UIUC student mentors for this past season included Robert Stavins, a graduate student in Mechanical Science & Engineering; Vasista Vovveti, a graduate student in Computer Science; and Sarah Wilson, a freshman in Electrical Engineering. UIUC’s Michal Ondrejcek, a senior software engineer in UIUC’s Applied Research Institute, serves as one of Ctrl-Z’s three coaches. 

Sponsors of this year’s team included the UI Extension, Caterpillar, Illini Robotics, Parkland College, the Bayer Fund, and the CS+X Foundation. 

The team is always seeking new sponsors and mentors.

Aiden Kim said that the presence of knowledgeable UIUC mentors has been invaluable to the team. “Our mentors are there to help us when we need it... And I feel like that is a great assistance to our team,” he said. “And they’re a crucial part of how well our team can work together.”

Marlow Tracy added that there was no Internet service in the shop where the robot was built. Luckily, the UIUC mentors’ robotics expertise meant they were “kind of like advanced engineering Google,” she laughed. “You could just ask them a question and they would have an answer for it!”

The Ctrl-Z team doesn’t just compete, but also does extensive outreach, especially to grade school and middle school students. For example, each year they offer a two-week summer camp for middle schoolers called the Summer Youth Robotics Academy (SYRA), and they host local Lego robotic competitions for younger students.

Marlow Tracy exemplifies the importance that FIRST participation can have in attracting students towards STEM. This fall, she’ll head to MIT to pursue a degree in Mechanical Engineering, and she says her Ctrl-Z experience was probably the single biggest factor in her choice of major. “When I was a freshman, I had no idea what I wanted to study. I was interested in biology,” she said. “But just being part of this team and building robots and doing all this technical design and assembly has made me find a passion for engineering!”

<em>Ctrl-Z&rsquo;s robot perched on a charging station during the world championships. Photo: @JayFloresInspires.</em>
Ctrl-Z’s robot perched on a charging station during the world championships. Photo: @JayFloresInspires.

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This story was published September 5, 2023.