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Students building robots competitively

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- The sounds of whirring of gears, clacking controllers and tinkling metal filled the air on the Coconino High School campus on a recent Saturday as the school's CocoNuts FIRST Robotics Team hosted two robotics events simultaneously.

The High Altitude Robotics Extravaganza included 25 FIRST Lego League teams and 12 FIRST Tech Challenge teams from Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada. All the teams were competing for a chance to advance to the next level of competition.

For the Lego League competition, dubbed "Nature's Fury," teams of kids, ages 9 to 14, had to invent robots that could help real-life communities respond to natural disasters. Each team had to choose a community and learn about the natural disasters that could strike that community.

They then had to come up with a solution to help keep people and property in the community safe before, during or after a natural disaster.

The final piece was to build and program an autonomous robot to help implement that solution using a Lego Mindstorms robot kit. The robots had to be able to complete tasks like clearing debris off a runway, distributing water to people in need and positioning evacuation signs.

The judges selected four Flagstaff teams and one Prescott team to advance to the Arizona FIRST Lego League Championship on Dec. 14 at Arizona State University. They were the Rock Lobsters of Basis Flagstaff, Wired of Cornerstone Christian Academy, the Cromer Tornados of Cromer Elementary School, the Building Bananas of Mountain School and the Sci-Clones of Granite Mountain Middle School in Prescott.

All five teams scored in the top 40 percent in the robot performance category and earned an "outstanding" in the areas of project, robot design and core values.

In the FIRST Tech Challenge competition, students in grades 7 to 12 were invited to compete in this year's challenge, called the "FTC Block Party." Unlike the Lego League competition, the FIRST Tech Challenge was set up like a tournament, with teams competing against each other to win points by making their robots perform assigned tasks in a game-like setting.

The teams had to use TETRIX, Matrix, and/or Lego robotics system kits to build robots capable of moving small blocks to the scoring areas on the playing field and the see-saw-like pendulum in the center of the field. Blocks placed on different parts of the field were worth different amounts of points. Teams could also earn points by making their robots raise a flag up a flag pole or hang from a pull-up bar above the playing field.

Judges chose seven teams to advance to the Arizona FIRST Tech Challenge Championship on Jan. 18, 2014, in Flagstaff. The Sinagua Mustangs Robotics team was the only middle school team to make the cut, a feat made even more impressive by the fact that the Mustangs are a rookie team that just started this year.

Coco High's AstroNuts were the only other Flagstaff team to advance to the state championships.

The others were T-REX from Sonoran Science Academy in Tucson; Aerosquadron from Highland High School in Gilbert; the Enterprisers community team from Reno, Nev.; the Area 52 Robotics Southern Nevada neighborhood team from Henderson, Nev.; and the AHERT Ravens Albuquerque Homeschool Engineering and Robotics Team from Albuquerque, N.M.

Meanwhile, the CHS CocoNuts are keeping busy. After hosting two robotics events, the team is already gearing up to help other host teams. They will travel to Albuquerque to help out at the New Mexico Qualifying Tournament Dec. 7, Mesa to help with the Phoenix Metro Area Qualifying Tournament Dec. 14 and Tucson to help with the Southern Arizona Qualifying Tournament Jan. 3.

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