Fighting Mongooses take robot to Houston for world championships

·4 min read

Jul. 29—"The whole world (came) to Houston" for the FIRST World Championships this spring, and that included Whitfield County Schools' Fighting Mongooses, said Brian Cooksey, an adviser for the Northwest Georgia College & Career Academy FIRST Robotics team.

For receiving the Engineering Inspiration Award — which celebrates outstanding success in advancing respect and appreciation for engineering within a team's school and community — at the 2022 Peachtree District Qualifier at the Dalton Convention Center in March, then receiving that award at the state competition in Macon at Mercer University, the Northwest Georgia College & Career Academy's robotics team was invited to Houston for the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) World Championships the third week of April, along with about 450 other teams, Cooksey said.

In addition to FIRST Robotics, other FIRST endeavors, like FIRST Lego League, conducted world championships in Houston that week, so about 35,000 people were in attendance.

"I didn't understand how many people that really is," said Jazmine Ayabar, who has been with the Fighting Mongooses for two years. "It was insane."

"Hearing about it and being there are two very different things," said Zero Hardy. "There were a lot of people from all over the world."

"I met a lot of people, and they were really nice, (although many were) very tired," said Hardy, a rising sophomore. "I met a girl from Turkey, and (while we) drove 13 hours to be there, she flew 13 hours."

Even teams with robots that "looked much more intimidating than our robot" weren't intimidating people when she met them, and she left with keepsakes from various teams, like their team buttons, she said. "They were so friendly."

Cooperation and camaraderie are inherent in the FIRST philosophy, Hardy said.

"In sports, teams are your rivals, but in FIRST you can go against someone, and then you're strategizing with them."

Though several senior members of the Fighting Mongooses had been to Houston for worlds previously and told underclassmen tales of the city and competition, "we didn't know what to expect with COVID-19," said Ayabar, a rising senior. However, the trip lived up to the hype, and it also fulfilled a dream for Ayabar, as "I always dreamed of going to worlds with FIRST Lego League when I was in it at Eastbrook Middle School, but we never made it."

Because of her background with FIRST Lego League, she made sure to visit those competitors in Houston.

"I talked to a lot of the kids, and they were so smart, (but) they were impressed by me and 'the big robots,'" she said with a smile. "It was cool to go back and see where my love for this started."

The Fighting Mongooses also saved their best competition performance of the season for last, in Houston, said Hugo Lozano, a rising sophomore and a driver for the squad.

"We were unique, because we played defense and offense, and we made it to the fourth — (and final) — bar in the climbing part, so we were all excited."

The 2022 FIRST Robotics Competition, Rapid React, focused on shooting balls and climbing, with four bars to climb worth varying levels of points, said Yosdel Castaneda, a captain who capped her fourth-and-final year with the Fighting Mongooses with the Houston trip.

Lozano and his fellow driver "got more used to the controls" as the season wore on, he said. "We also got more strategic."

Lozano enjoyed exploring robots belonging to other squads at worlds and comparing them with his team's.

"You see their unique parts and what they came up with," said Lozano, who was in his first year with the Fighting Mongooses. He also heard plenty of compliments from other teams about his squad, "which felt nice."

While they spent most of their time competing and preparing for the contest, the team did stop in Louisiana on their way to Houston to see several live animals and learn about a swampland ecosystem, Ayabar said. In Houston, they visited the Houston Museum of Natural Science, viewing everything from dinosaur fossils and human bones to a "very cool" space exhibit.

The robotics team "shaped my character and my future," said Pablo Avila, a four-year member of the Fighting Mongooses and valedictorian for Southeast Whitfield High School's class of 2022. "It shapes lives and will continue to do so."

Nearly half of the 2021-22 squad were seniors, and "90%" are pursuing STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields in the future, Avila said.

"We encourage others to find their passion in engineering."

Those who will return to the team next season, like Ayabar, Hardy and Lozano, feel a responsibility to make another run to worlds before they graduate, just as this season's seniors did, Lozano said.

"We need to restart the cycle," Hardy affirmed.

And "we absolutely will," Ayabar vowed. "We'll carry on the legacy."