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Tiny Navajo Mountain school reaches Utah robotics contest

First Published      Last Updated Apr 07 2017 10:14 pm

Luck and determination bring the San Juan County high school team to Utah robotics contest, which opens Friday.

Conrad heard about it after meeting Michael Heimlich, professor at Macquarie University in Sydney and coach of an Australian FIRST Robotics team, who visited Navajo Mountain ­— total enrollment, 32 students — as part of an effort to expand the program worldwide.

Through teaching at robot camps, Heimlich eventually would help fund Navajo Mountain's team registration and robot kit for the Utah contest. He said enthusiasm and gratitude shown by students and teachers was "beyond (his) wildest dreams."

Given the school's remote location — the nearest hardware store is three hours away in Flagstaff — the team built much of their robot from scrap metal and wood and made prototypes out of cardboard to conserve supplies.

Briana Bitsinnie, a 17-year-old junior on the team, welded metal scraps together to build the cage, which holds in the guts of the machine. She attended every building session, despite a 23-mile commute to and from the school.

Bitsinnie said working with her hands and fine-tuning her welding skills offered a welcome change of pace from other classwork.

"I liked that it was something fun to do and I could also learn at the same time," she said, adding that her outlook on what she can accomplish has changed drastically.

For the competition, robots need to complete several tasks, including catching large gears and driving across the competition field — dubbed "the pit" — then placing gears on pegs and climbing rope.

The Navajo Mountain team corresponded with their Australian supporters and teams from Waterford School in Sandy to test ideas and solve problems during the building process. But students hadn't seen some components in action until they arrived in Salt Lake City Tuesday.

Sophomore Nahida Smith, who helped program Navajo's robot, said watching it move ­— driven by her code — filled her with pride.

"I didn't know I could do this," Smith said.

Upon entering the pit at the Maverik Center Thursday after an eight-and-a-half hour car trek to Salt Lake City, nerves washed over the six teammates. The pit bustled with students typing, tightening and tweaking their entries for practice rounds.

But those jitters eased once an inspector gave the go-ahead to assemble their robot, which weighed in at the regulation 120 pounds. The team seemed to hit a natural rhythm once tools came to hand and the building began.

What started as a daunting effort turned into an empowering and unifying experience, students explained. This week's contest is almost an afterthought, they said. The Navajo Mountain kids all won when they first joined the team.

kgifford@sltrib.com Twitter @kelgiffo