JPL-Mentored Teams Shine at Annual Student Robotics Competition – Pasadena Now

From left, Team 696, aka the “Circuit Breakers,” and Team 6904, the “TeraWatts,” were among seven JPL-sponsored teams that competed in the Los Angeles regional FIRST robotics competition April 1-3, 2022 . The Circuit Breakers were rated first in the competition and were winning team Allianz in the finals.

After 12 frantic weeks of building 125-pound (57-kilogram) robots and two days of fast-paced competition featuring dozens of similar machines, six teams of Southern California high schoolers have triumphed. Now those teams, including one mentored and sponsored by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, are heading to Houston for an international championship next month.

The Los Angeles area’s annual FIRST robotics competition, held over the weekend at the Da Vinci Schools campus in El Segundo, attracted 42 teams and more than 1,400 students. Despite the pandemic-related spectator ban, the venue was buzzing with energy, including colour-coordinated team outfits and matching pompoms.

The event – one of many under the umbrella of the non-profit FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) – aims to encourage students to develop math, engineering and team management skills. Teams were given guidelines for building their robots in early January, but had plenty of creative freedom in designing their machines. This year’s competition pitted two alliances of three teams against each other, trying to shoot “cargo balls” into two stacked baskets or play defense. For extra points, robots could grab and pull up a series of overhanging rungs in opposite corners of the playfield.

JPL-sponsored Team 696, also known as the “Circuit Breakers” from Clark Magnet High in Glendale, took first place in the competition, won the “Excellence in Engineering” award and were among the finals winners. The team’s robot’s impressive climbing mechanism has been dubbed the “Ferris Wheel of Destiny,” said Carlos Gross Jones, a JPL electrical systems engineer who oversees the team.

mentorship for the future

Ahead of Sunday’s competition, JPL’s Robert Hogg — a longtime team mentor-turned-referee and judge — spoke to the students crowded in the stands at the campus gym. “If you continue on the path you’ve taken and the work you’re doing and work hard at it, someone in this building could be one of the first people to set foot on Mars,” said Hogg, the deputy mission manager for the Perseverance NASA rover mission managed by JPL.

Many former participants become mentors, and some end up working at JPL and other NASA centers. Hogg and mentors at JPL said that seeing students achieve successful careers is the best reward for many hours volunteering with FIRST teams.

Ashley Curiel, a mechanical engineer at JPL, became addicted to FIRST while entering a competition a few years ago. To become a mentor, she sought out a team that did not already have support from JPL: Team 6904, the “TeraWatts”, with students from Jordan High and Animo Pat Brown Charter High in the South Los Angeles area. Curiel, a first-generation immigrant from Mexico, said mentoring meant “helping children see their full potential — that they’re capable of so many things, regardless of preconceived notions because of their race or the color of their skin.”

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair, the lead mentor and founder of TeraWatts, the former chemistry teacher at Jordan High, said she wants to help bring historically underrepresented communities into STEM careers — and shape minds that can help solve Earth’s problems to solve. “We could miss the next Einstein or the next Mae Jemison if we don’t,” she added.

Students have to design, build and program robots, but there is much more to it than that. They must also strategize, scout talent, build alliances, fundraise, develop branding, and learn to run teams like a business.

Jordan High Junior Heaven Watson said she’s gained communication, leadership and networking skills since joining the TeraWatts last season. Now she is project manager for the team and host of the podcast. “It’s more than us; it’s a community,” added Heaven. “It builds inspiration and tries to influence other people.”

The TeraWatts, who recently starred in the documentary More Than Robots, didn’t make the playoffs. But they received the Judges’ Award, presented to a team whose unique efforts deserve special recognition.

This competition’s championship features Team 696 and its alliance partners: Team 3476 (“Code Orange”) of Irvine and Team 599 (the “Robodox”) of Granada Hills Charter High in LA, who won a wildcard entry. Team 8898 (“Royal Rebels Engineering”) from Rosary Academy in Fullerton also earned a wild card slot. Two other teams are eligible to go to Houston based on the awards they received: Team 2637 (“Phantom Catz”) from Palos Verdes Peninsula High and Team 3749 (“Team Optix”) from Del Norte High School in San Diego.

For more information about FIRST Regional Los Angeles, visit: Angeles/

For detailed results and rankings go to:


For more information on NASA’s Robotics Alliance Project, visit:

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