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Modesto high school robotics team honored for guiding youth, called 'true inspiration'

The Modesto Bee logoThe Modesto Bee 3/31/2022 Emily Isaacman, The Modesto Bee

Mar. 30—Beyer High School's robotics team won a regional award this weekend for its community outreach, which includes mentoring younger students in STEM and guiding lower-level teams it has inspired.

The team, called the "Iron Patriots" in a play on Beyer High's school mascot, was the first robotics team of its kind in Modesto when math teacher Heidi Pagani co-founded it 10 years ago, she said. The recognition students earned this weekend secures them a spot at a championship competition in late April in Houston with teams from around the world.

"I can't really describe the feeling of seeing your hard work pay off," four-year member and co-captain Gracie Maldonado Roberts said. "It doesn't really quite feel real."

The team of 40 students from Beyer and other area high schools competes through an international nonprofit organization called FIRST Robotics, which offers robotics programs for students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. The organization's name is an acronym: For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.

The Modesto students devote at least 15 hours a week to the team, meeting after school twice a week, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays, some Sundays and holiday Mondays, Maldonado Roberts said.

After more than a year off due to COVID-19 restrictions, team members returned determined to make their best robot yet, she said.

"I've never been on a team where every single person is working and productive constantly," Maldonado Roberts said, "but that's what the team has been like this year."

Students split into nine subteams to create various parts of their robot over six to eight weeks. These include a wiring team that makes sure the robot is electrically sound and a computer-assisted-design team to create an image of the robot before building it.

The regional competition in Monterey Bay over the weekend consisted of three long days of team robot challenges (think robots climbing monkey bars), essay submissions and interviews about anything from robots to community outreach.

"It's an extraordinarily hectic experience," co-captain Tahbert Bui said, "but it's also really fun."

The senior's voice still hasn't fully recovered from screaming.

Guiding young girls in STEM

The Engineering Inspiration Award the team won "celebrates outstanding success in advancing respect and appreciation for engineering within a team's school or organization and community," the competition's website says.

Though the team has been involved in the community since its founding, students' outreach has increased over the past three years, said Megan Haubrich, a junior. "We are very much a community-driven team," she said.

The team launched a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) summer camp in 2019 to introduce children to Lego robots and programming. The high-schoolers also mentor robotics teams across Modesto at schools including La Loma, Roosevelt and Savage middle schools, which all have started after Beyer's began, Haubrich said.

The team attends community events likes First Fridays and the Modesto Certified Farmers Market. The Iron Patriots even presented to other countries about the role of STEM in early stages of growth, the students said.

In a couple of weeks, the students will help members of a local Girl Scout troop earn robotics badges, and at least five more troops have reached out the program, Haubrich said. That's dozens of young girls to whom Iron Patriots team members could model strong female leadership in STEM.

"We see not just our school but our entire community working to empower girls," Maldonado Roberts said.

When she joined her freshman year, she was one of just four girls on the team, she said. She said she faced a host of misogynistic remarks associated with sexist stereotypes about women's place in the male-dominated robotics field.

But now, just a few years later, girls make up a third of the team — roughly comparable to the percentage of female workers in STEM in the U.S., which still shows a sizable gender gap.

Under her co-leadership, Maldonado Roberts said she hasn't heard a single misogynistic comment from within the team this year. The award this weekend is only further proof of the students' capabilities.

"It's kind of a slap in the face to everyone who told us we couldn't," Haubrich said.

Praise from district superintendent

In a statement provided to The Modesto Bee, Modesto City Schools Superintendent Sara Noguchi said she's "beyond thrilled and so very proud of Beyer High's Iron Patriots."

"Modesto City Schools invests resources to build a robust STEAM/STEM education curriculum, and the success of the Iron Patriots is evidence that we are making a positive impact in our students' education," Noguchi said in the statement. "The Iron Patriots' innovation, creativity and passion for STEM and robotics is a true inspiration to those around them."

Beyer High School now has three robotics teams that meet after school to build and program robots for competitions, though the Iron Patriots remains the only team in Modesto that vies in FIRST Robotics Challenge, a specific type of competition. Students can also take classes during the school day to complete a robotics pathway.

The team is funded through community donations and sponsorships. Modesto City Schools provides some money for travel, and the team's regional award comes with $5,000 to cover the registration fee for the international championship, according to a press release from the team.

The team has $40,000 to work with this this year — the most it's ever had. This weekend, the Iron Patriots faced opponents with budgets more than four times their own, said Pagani, who co-coaches the team. The team is also supported by volunteer mentors from the community.

"To be competing with the world's best, with their much higher budgets and experience, that's a real achievement for us," Bui said.

The Iron Patriots compete in another regional event March 30 through April 2 in Fresno. After that, the students and their robot will compete against 450 teams from around the world April 20-23 in Houston.

To learn more about the Iron Patriots robotics team, including how to support through donations, sponsorships and mentoring, visit

This story was originally published March 30, 2022 3:22 PM.

(c)2022 The Modesto Bee (Modesto, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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