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Robotics World Champions Welcomed Home to McLean

Middle and elementary school students triumph in California.

In the back row, Team Reisenschein, from left: Angela Wei, Christopher Kang, Megha Narayanan, Matthew Cox, Rohit Narayanan. In front, Team Regulated Additives, from left: Chris Barre Chandler Wimmer, Gabriel Wimmer, Walker Haynes.

In the back row, Team Reisenschein, from left: Angela Wei, Christopher Kang, Megha Narayanan, Matthew Cox, Rohit Narayanan. In front, Team Regulated Additives, from left: Chris Barre Chandler Wimmer, Gabriel Wimmer, Walker Haynes. Photo by Bruce Haynes

McLean and Great Falls welcomed home world champions in April, when two elementary and middle school teams returned from the VEX World Robotics Championships in Anaheim, Calif. The competition brought together 760 outstanding teams from 27 countries, in which their robots solved an engineering challenge and the students presented their original scientific findings. After four days of competing, in what culminated seven months of intensive preparation, the students of the McLean Robotics Institute were presented seventh place in the Teamwork Challenge, and the Excellence Award overall, the highest award in the championship.

This year’s robotics teams, named “Reisenschein” and “Regulated Additives,” comprised students ranging from third to seventh grade, from Churchill Road, Longfellow, and the Potomac Schools. They gathered their talents together under the supervision of Anant Narayanan, or Mr. Nari, who founded the McLean Robotics Institute in 2010. “I’d say our progress is surprising,” said seventh grade member Matthew Cox, “When we started… I don’t think we ever realized that we’d be doing another competition, let along that we’d be first in the world.”

IN THEIR RESPECTIVE TEAMS, these students honed their skills in science and technology to develop the most effective robot to play in the game. “We had a total of 13 different robot designs, which was sometimes frustrating,” described fifth grader Christopher Kang. The robot evolved in its claw, gearing, and various angle configurations throughout its lifespan. The students took on a variety of roles in each phase of creation, including programmer, researcher, designer, and writer. As the youngest member of the team, third grader Megha Narayanan recalled, “I kept the stress level down, and the energy level up!”

But for these children, pursuing robotics is more than simply building a machine: it is a means of self-expression. “We aren’t necessarily the robots we create,” remarked sixth grader Rohit Narayanan, “We have favorite TV shows, we’re extremely picky eaters, we like speaking obscure languages.” Indeed, their passions for learning were manifested in many ways, from learning German words as a communicative team code, to exploring Smithsonian exhibits together, to collecting their findings into published children’s illustrated books. “The team members are my friends,” said seventh grader Gabriel Wimmer.

The rising prominence of the McLean Robotics Institute represents a filling void of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) opportunities for young people in the McLean-Great Falls community. Coach Nari, who also coached youth soccer for many years previously, spoke of his vision for a Science and Technology Center in McLean, where children could participate in scientific opportunities as frequently as they might attend practices and games for their competitive sports. Many skills and lessons extracted from athletics—perseverance, teamwork, resolution, commitment—are likewise experienced in the STEM world. And meanwhile, female members like Angela Wei are looking for more girl power to join hers.

But for now, these students are happy to reminisce in the thrilling memories of the competition. “The announcers called the words ‘commercially published’ and we all sort of jumped up!” recalled fifth grader Christopher Kang. The team accepted their trophies and banners in front of thousands of other competitors, after festivities such as a Parade of Nations and a visit from Tony Hawk. “It was really quite a show,” remembered Bruce Haynes, who accompanied his son, Walker, in California.

THE TEAM would say that this is only the beginning of their explorations in robotics. With the coming summer and fall seasons ahead, its members can now know the community anticipates and supports whichever challenge they rise to next. Those interested in participating with the McLean Robotics Institute can email info.mcleanrobotics.org for more information.