Highland Park Squad Wins Illinois State Robotics Championship

HIGHLAND PARK, IL – After a dramatic come-from-behind victory, a group of nine Highland Park High School juniors have been crowned robot-building champions of Illinois.

The Rust in Piece Robotics team, a community squad independent of the high school’s prestigious robotics program, won the FIRST Tech Challenge state championship Saturday at Elgin Community College.

Their victory means – for the second time in four years – and the ninth time since 2008 – a team from Highland Park is headed to the world championships.

Find out what’s happening in Highland Parkwith free, real-time updates from Patch.

The FIRST Tech Challenge, or FTC, is a robotics competition for middle and high schoolers where students collaborate to design, build and program robots to complete a particular game, with rules that change every year.

Teams, range from four or five to a maximum of 15 members, build robots and make strategic alliances with one another to compete in arenas in multi-robot showdowns. And, at the state championships, they are also tasked with presenting their work to judges in a trade show-style format.

Find out what’s happening in Highland Parkwith free, real-time updates from Patch.

“We use robots to build kids, not having kids build robots,” said Jonathan Weiland, director of the Illinois FTC.

This year’s challenge, “Freight Frenzy,” featured a challenge to build a robot that can traverse tough terrain to navigate obstacles to pick up and transport blocks of varying weights, small balls and rubber ducks.

“It’s like the UPS company or Federal Express, they have to move objects from the warehouse to the shipping hubs,” Weiland said.

Rust In Piece, or RIP, qualified as one of the 36 teams to make it to the state finals after taking third place in the northeast suburban regional tournament last month.

(Courtesy Erica Cohen)

After posting top scores the first two rounds of the state finals, a flip by a partner team dropped the team down to 14th but the squad was able to stay alive and make it to the playoffs by scoring just high enough in the fourth round to make the top four.

In the playoff round, a surprise semifinal upset of the top-seeded teams meant RIP, captain of the third-seeded alliance, faced off in the finals against the fourth-seeded alliance and won.

Weiland, the former coach of Highland Park High School’s robotics squad, retired as a science teacher at Highland Park High School following the 2018-19 school year. That year, one of its teams, Vertigo, the robotics program’s first and only win of the Inspire Award, the most prestigious awarded by the FTC, which recognizes the most well-rounded program.

The winner and runner-up of the Inspire Award, along with the team that captains the winning alliance like Rust In Piece did, qualify for the world championships this year.

Since Weiland first began leading the Illinois FTC in 2011, the state’s program has grown from 32 participating teams to a pre-coronavirus peak of more than 200. This year, there were more than 166 teams competing. Generally about half are organized by schools and half are community-supported, he said.

This year, Highland Park fielded three recently formed teams from the high school – Steel Serpents, Motor Cortex, Out of Cache – as well as three community teams – Rust In Piece, Vertigo and It’s Gotta Blow.

“Highland Park, we’ve had great success, and success breeds success,” Weiland told Patch. “Like the Yankees, I guess they win a lot. It helps to be successful.”


(Stephen House / Courtesy FIRST Tech Challenge)

When the first wave of COVID-19 infections in Illinois led schools to close their doors in the spring of 2020, members of Vertigo and Rust In Piece decided they were not going to give up building robots or competing in the FTC, recalled HPHS parent Erica Cohen, who became the coach of the team.

“This became a full time job,” Cohen said. “I have zero, zero, zero experience in engineering. I have engineering boys, but it’s just not my level of understanding.”

Cohen’s older son, Benjamin, was a member of the 2019 state champion Vertigo team. After graduating that year, he was awarded a full-ride scholarship to the University of Southern California, where he is a trustee scholar and Viterbi School of Engineering fellow majoring in mechanical engineering. Her younger son, Adin, was entering the spring of his freshman year as the pandemic spread to Illinois.

“COVID hit and Vertigo and Rust in Piece were like ‘we’re not going to stop doing this’ and I had the parents calling me,” Cohen said. “My kid’s still going to go to college in four years. You can’t stop learning, right?”

The robotics competition is more like a full academic course than a typical after-school club, Cohen told Patch.

“It has a bigger curriculum in it, as much as a math class or a science class,” Cohen said. “So these parents who we saw that football was going to go, and that the football coach was going to go and we saw that tennis was going, it was like these parents of these brilliant, brilliant STEM kids were like, ‘What about STEM? ‘”

Cohen said she called Weiland, who offered some guidance on how to coach the team.

“Because of that, we didn’t miss out a whole year and a half of learning, which is amazing,” she said. “These kids are now more prepared to go wherever they apply for engineering school.”

FTC world championships were canceled in 2020 and 2021, but the Illinois FTC still held 2021 state championships, conducting the competition remotely via videos of robots in students’ homes.

“You just weren’t competing against anybody,” Weiland said. “So it wasn’t as much fun.”

In August 2020, after learning that Highland Park High School would remain remote for the coming school year, Adin switched from Vertigo to Rust In Piece.

“I really felt strongly – and the kids have called me ‘Crazy Robo-Mom’ a couple times – I really felt strongly that if I was going to do this, they were going to follow the curriculum,” Cohen said. “I wasn’t going to drop the ball, where they would just be tinkering and playing.”

Working from Cohen’s basement and undergoing students on the squad divided up duties according to their individual expertise. While each member knows about and supports all the other roles on the team, which range from designing, building, programming, documenting and outreach, each member does not try to do it all.

“Nowadays, in a lot of learning environments, every kid is supposed to do every single role, you know, ‘Every kid should drive the robot,’ ‘Every kid should build the robot,’ ‘Every kid should code the robot.’ Our team didn’t function that way, “Cohen said. “Just like a business, they all took their role, and that’s what made them so well-oiled.”

Rust In Piece also raised about $ 12,000 through sponsorships and donations, despite the challenges associated with traditional forms of fundraising, such as bake sales, amid the coronavirus. Nonetheless, the team was able to raise $ 2,200 by hosting a “garage sales for gears” event, Cohen said.

The team also took a piece of software Weiland created to allow teams to test their robots without physical access to equipment, the Virtual Robot Simulator, to Wilmot Elementary School in Deerfield School District 109, where 5th graders spent 10 weeks learning to program robots.

“That’s what I’m most proud of,” Weiland said, “is that they do more than robots and they’re trying to bring the coding and engineering experience to more kids.”


(Courtesy Erica Cohen)

Rust In Piece’s squad is made up of Humza Ansari, Adin Cohen, Ross Goldbaum, Jacob Hoyt, Josh Jacobson, Leah Jacobson, Spencer Nguyen, Ari Posner and Will Richter. Its sponsors included Accurate Perforating and Accurate Fabricating, Imperial Group, VOUS Vitamins, Servo City, 4XF Bags and the Rock Spot.

Weiland, the retired HPHS teacher and current Illinois FTC director, has sought to elevate competitive robotics to the equivalent of the high school athletics experience – except where all its participants can effectively turn pro.

Out of about 13,000 students to graduate HPHS during his 26 years as a teacher there, he said, there had been about 10 who had made it to some kind of professional level in athletics, including one who was cut before getting a contract.

“But everybody on my robotics teams has all gone on to interesting careers,” Weiland said. “That’s why we consider ourselves the varsity sport of the mind, and that’s why we hold our tournaments in stadiums and basketball arenas, because people equate that experience with power and intrigue and prestige.”

The FTC world championships are scheduled to take place April 19 to April 23 at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston.

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