The Dalles Sends 3 Robotics Teams to World Championships

By Rodger Nichols

Syntax Error and System Overload team members show off their championship banners. From the left are Zach Banks, Kim Morales Cortes, Everest Lenardson, Evelyn Schecter, Ian Castaneda, Jack McAllister, and Colin Schecter. Photo by Lu Seapy

For decades, The Dalles has been a force to reckon with in baseball, winning the high school state title 9 times since 1955. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say there are local baseball programs available from the time someone is as tall as the bat.

In recent years, local students have also taken top honors in a 21st-century pastime of a different kind: robotics. Organizers have incorporated an early-start model by implementing robotics programs that begin as early as kindergarten. By the time students reach middle and high school, they have years of experience.

That experience was clear at the recent statewide robotics competition, where the Disconauts team from The Dalles Middle School and 2 teams from The Dalles High School—Syntax Error and System Overload—swept the state championships and qualified for the VEX Robotics world competition in Dallas, Texas.

Members of Syntax Error give the thumbs up after their robot grabbed the blue pipe and pulled itself off the floor for bonus points. From left are Everest Lenardson, Evelyn Schecter, and Zach Banks. Photo by Lu Seapy

This isn’t the first time the teams have advanced to worlds. In 2022, the TDHS team System Overload won its division of 82 teams, ultimately placing in the top 10 in the world. More than a million students on 24,000 VEX Robotics teams in 60 countries participate. It is the largest competition of its kind in the world.

The highly successful program is a collaboration between the Wasco County 4-H program and the North Wasco County School District.

That is thanks to Lu Seapy, former science, technology, engineering, and mathematics program coordinator for Oregon State University Extension in Wasco County. She helped introduce VEX robotics locally 7 years ago and has since written dozens of grants that brought in more than $750,000 to fund 4-H STEM programs in Wasco County.

Another factor promoting local success is the style of the competition. VEX requires all competitors to start with exactly the same supplies, leveling the playing field so smaller districts can compete with larger ones.

The Setup

1 of the high school team’s robots clamped onto the red bar and hauled itself off the floor. The cylinder at the top right contains compressed air to operate several functions. Photo by Rodger Nichols

The rules impose certain design constraints. For example, the robot must fit within an 18-by-18-by-18-inch space.

Middle school teams compete on a 6-by-8-foot field. Their robots pick up plastic cubes and deposit them in corner bins. During competition, they pair with another team for a teamwork challenge.

High school teams compete on a 12-by-12-foot field, with 2 teams paired against 2 others. This year, participants moved triangular-shaped balls, called tribals, from 1 side of the field into a goal while the other team tried to take them away and prevent scoring. In the end, the robots tried to clamp onto and climb up a bar.

There are also driving skills matches and autonomous coding matches. Teams play alone, trying for the highest score they can achieve in 1 minute. The first match tests the team’s driving ability, and the second tests how well the robot can perform on its own while running on a program designed by the students.

In addition, teams are evaluated during an interview that questions their knowledge and on a master engineering notebook that records the team’s cycles of iteration in research, design, construction, and execution.

The Disconauts

Edgar Castaneda is an honor roll student and an 8th grader at The Dalles Middle School. He was recruited by his older brother, Ian, who is on the System Overload team.

“At the beginning of the year, they’ll give you the game, and you just build what you can to make it work,” Edgar says. “That’s kind of the whole fun of it.”

Kanin Nefzger is 1 of 2 seventh graders on the Disconauts. He says a local Google presentation on building robots drew him in. “This is my first year,” he says. “I joined to see how it would go, and it’s going pretty well.”

Kanin says he plans to go on to high school robotics next year. He is eager to learn more about strategies and to meet other players and learn from them.

Jordan Torres-Olivan met Edgar at a 4-H aerial robotics camp. He says 1 of his goals is to score 100 points in the autonomous competition—what Lu says is a lofty aspiration, as their best run at state scored a 79. Jordan also plays several sports, and he hopes to be a pilot someday.

William McAllister is an 8th grader at Wildwood Academy in Hood River. He began the year at TDMS with the Disconauts and continues working with his teammates after school. He is the team’s lead programmer and helped write the autonomous code that placed them a full 40 points above the next-best team at the Oregon State Championship. He says his favorite part of robotics is the coding and the ability to solve different problems. When not working with the team he enjoys soccer, mathematics, and chess.

Syntax Error

Evelyn holds a triball—a triangular-shaped piece used in high school tournament play. Photo by Rodger Nichols

Sophomore Everest Lenardson says he is “a math guy.” He is the programmer for the team.

“Seeing the robot do all the cool things you’ve been trying to get it to do—when it finally does it, that feeling of success is 1 of the best feelings you can have,” he says.

Everest also swims, plays football, runs track, and throws the shot put. Balancing sports and robotics can be challenging, he says, but worth it.

Evelyn Schecter, also a sophomore, credits her older brother with getting her interested in robotics. She’s been working in various programs since second grade. She is a designer and builder on the team and an honor roll student.

“It’s easy to build something that moves along the ground,” she says. “Once you’ve got the drive train, you build up and build the things you need to do to solve the design problems.”

Kim Morales Cortes, who is vice president of her sophomore class, acts as a scout during competition.

“I make sure the drivers know who they are up against and what they do,” she says.

In her freshman year, Kim played soccer and basketball and threw javelin. This year, she stuck solely with soccer to concentrate more on robotics, but she also plays trombone and percussion in every band the school offers—symphonic, jazz, pop, and marching.

“I want music to be part of my future, too,” she says. “But the career I want is to be an astronomer.”

Zach Banks, a junior, logs everything the team does in the engineer’s notebook. “People come up with ideas and inspirations, and I document it all to show our processes,” he says.

The notebook also shows the team’s design diagrams and the programming code.

This is Zach’s third year in robotics. Last year, he consulted with other successful teams on how to improve his notebook and spent the whole summer focusing on the task. As a result, the team took top honors in the notebook category at the state competition.

Coach Chuck Weber is a career and education teacher at TDHS. Gaming comes naturally to him as the owner of Oregon Trail Games, a small local store specializing in collectible card games, board games, and miniature games.

System Overload

In third grade, senior Jack McAllister started participating in the LEGO program at Col. Wright Elementary School. In sixth grade, he got into an underwater robotics competition when his friend Ian Castaneda invited him to join his team.

“I’m the designer,” Jack says. “I help program, and I do all the strategy. Colin (Schecter) helps me figure out how to do that, and Ian helps me figure out how it’s all going to work.”

When not wrestling robotics problems, Jack kiteboards, skis and plays tennis.

Jack wants people to know students are learning skills they will take to a job someday.

“Companies see those skills and want them,” he says. He says demonstrating those skills rallied the community behind fundraising to send the team to the world competition. “We requested support from Google, and they gave us money,” he says. “And also the PUD. We asked for $2,000, and they gave us $5,000. It was crazy.”

Ian, a senior who serves as team captain, helped System Overload place 8th in the world in 2022. He coaches the middle school Disconauts and his younger brother, Edgar.

With the world competition, he says he was looking forward to studying the highest-performing robots all over the world with an eye to outperforming them and beating the best of the best.

Colin is the lead CAD designer on the team. “My job is to design the robot and create a digital model of the robot for testing and building it,” he says.

He also manages the engineering notebook, doing most of the documentation. When not spending 20 hours or more a week on robotics, he enjoys mountain biking, dirt biking and camping with his family. He’s off to Oregon State University in the fall with an OSU President’s Scholarship.

Coach Marc McAllister came to robotics through his children. “I always like to take part,” he says. “It’s no fun just sitting there.”

He served as a chaperone on trips and helped with fundraising in the past. This year, he stepped in to help when the high school coach was sick and had to step back for a while.

“Really, at the high school level, the coach is more an adult organizer than truly a coach,” Marc says. “The teams actually self-coach.”

He says the biggest reward for him is watching the students learn to be part of a team and be confident in their abilities.

Support for the team has been widespread. A campaign to raise money to send the teams to Dallas raised $25,000 to $7,000 more than the original goal. The Dalles City Council honored the teams at its April 8 meeting. Mayor Rich Mays read a proclamation that concluded, “In recognition of their remarkable achievements and dedication to robotics, on behalf of the City Council and the citizens of The Dalles, we extend our heartfelt congratulations.”