Menlo Robotics Leaders Inspire Change After Pandemic Challenges
March 29, 2023
The Menlo robotics A team placed 37th out of 50 teams in the first round of state competitions on March 11, 2023. The team barely missed the top 32 cutoffs to advance to the next round. Despite falling short at states, Menlo has had success in tournaments throughout the year. The top Menlo team placed seventh out of 30 in the Nov. 5 Central Valley Spin Up tournament and sixth out of 23 in the Tri-Valley Tournament on Nov. 12.
The robotics program, which now consists of 13 students distributed across three teams split by skill level (A, B and C) faced many challenges before qualifying for states. Coming out of the pandemic, the robotics program struggled in part because robotics requires meeting in person. “During COVID we couldn’t support the robotics program because so much of it is about being in person and building things together,” Upper School Science Department Chair James Formato said. “We saw that the program went into kind of a quiet mode.” Formato credits the students for their hard work and perseverance in contributing to the success of the team today.
When current Menlo robotics leaders sophomores Marina Xanthopoulos, Kate Little and junior Isabel Prado-Tucker first joined the program in September 2021, they were looking for a high-commitment robotics team. In just a couple of months, they began to turn the program around.
Xanthopoulos initially noticed that the teams were very unstructured. The program split into separate teams, each team designing its own robot and attending different tournaments. Although each robotics team was assigned a team leader to support them, the role of the leader was not clearly defined in terms of duties and decision-making. “Our team leader had a bunch of obligations that they had to attend to and robotics wasn’t their first priority, so they couldn’t meet too often,” Xanthopoulos said. “We didn’t know if we had to run [many decisions] by [our team leaders].”
In the fall of 2021, the A team learned that the only tournament with space for registration in all of California was on Feb. 4, 2022. With only a few weeks to prepare for the tournament, the robotics team would meet on the quad after the Whitaker lab closed at five. “We would take the robot out into the quad and it was so stressful,” Xanthopoulos said.
The team was without their club leaders after a last-minute cancellation, and the inexperienced team didn’t know what to expect. Even worse, at the tournament, the robot was oversized and didn’t pass inspection, so the team had to make last-minute changes. They were also not aware that they needed safety goggles when competing. “We were under the table while they were calling our team name going, ‘94027A, you’re gonna be disqualified if you don’t come up here,’ and we [came] up and we [didn’t] have safety goggles,” Xanthopoulos said. “It was a mess.”
After their unsuccessful competition during the 2021-2022 school year, the team looked to make changes. Little noted that the team had a lack of resources and supplies, such as power tools. The team was forced to order many supplies to make up for the shortage the year before.
Xanthopoulos, Little and Prado-Tucker met with the former robotics club advisor Nina Arnberg during the spring of 2022 to address their challenges. Arnberg suggested that the students lead the club after they met with her and Arnberg chose to step down in order to prioritize other projects. Xanthopoulos, Little and Prado-Tucker became the official leaders of the robotics club in March 2022, and biology teacher Dietrich Schuhl became the new faculty advisor. Schul quickly took charge of purchasing supplies and signing up teams for competitions.
In addition to a new faculty advisor, the robotics team sought out a new coach. Menlo hired Warren Horowitz in September 2022 to help students lead meetings and manage their time when building the robot. While benefitting from adult guidance, the robotics team is still a student-driven club. “The kids on the team do 99% of what needs to be done and what makes the team successful,” Schuhl said. “It’s really their club.”
The club leaders make an effort to help other teams. “If a team needs help or doesn’t know how to do something we don’t want them to feel like they’re alone,” Xanthopoulos said. “We’ve tried our hardest to make it so people don’t feel that way because we felt pretty alone last year [with] no guidance.”
In the future, the Menlo robotics leaders want to attend more serious competitions and host a competition of their own in the Spring of 2024. Schuhl said that this past year has been transformative for Menlo robotics. “This has been a big learning year for me and the team and everyone involved,” Schuhl said. “The program has grown and shifted dramatically since COVID times.”
Through the ups and downs, the robotics leaders never gave up. “I wish we had more support last year, but I’m proud of what we’ve done,” Prado-Tucker said. “It’s been rough, [but] we’ve done it ourselves.”