Kaprekar's Constants never fail to impress

Photo by Emma Johnson

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Sitting in the Winters section of the bleachers, it’s hard not to watch the Madtown Throwdown, a high school robotics competition in Madera, like it’s a feel-good sports movie. In the movie the Kaprekar’s Constants are playing the scrappy-underdogs going up against an insurmountable number of talented, well-funded bullies from their rich high school rivals. The narrative holds up for a little bit. Winters’ robot doesn’t look like the top ranked teams’ fast, sleek bots. Other teams design their robots in drafting software, then have the parts made somewhere else. The Winters students drew their design out on paper, built a model from plywood, then made the final robot out of scrap aluminum donated by Ace Hardware and Access Manufacturing. And Winters obviously doesn’t have the same level of funding as some of the other schools. Madera High School has three classrooms and a spacious shop dedicated to their robotics team. The Winters robot is built on the kind of card table that unfolds to become a roulette wheel. Winters has a few local sponsors. Some of the other teams at the competition were sponsored by household names like “Google” and “NASA.” But this isn’t a fairytale sports movie. The other teams aren’t scheming bullies, and Winters isn’t going to win because they harnessed the power of friendship or they have a teammate who is a surprisingly talented golden retriever. They aren’t even going to win. They know that, before they even enter the competition. Their coach Mike Challender will tell you that it is statistically impossible. What they will do is make it farther than any outside observer would think possible. The cookie cutter underdog story falls apart with a closer look at the team. They aren’t a group of stereotypical wimpy nerds burying themselves in computer programs. Aiden and Diego Escamilla played in the football game on Friday night. Celeste Garcia was there with them, playing in the marching band. They all woke up early on Saturday to make in to the first match in Madera at 8 a.m. Several of the students didn’t even know they had an interest in engineering or robotics before they joined the team. Valeria Ceja says she has always loved looking at car engines and motherboards, but many of the team members didn’t join until friends, parents and teachers cajolled them into it. Once they joined, they were hooked. Juan Bermudez likes seeing all of the different types of robots. Alex Chavez took on a role as a welder. Alejandro Garcia was interested in the tech stuff, but became a drive coach. He watches the field and directs the drivers’ strategy during the matches. He found that the team was more welcoming than he ever expected. “I felt like I belonged,” Garcia says.   A robotics competition plays out in three arenas: the field, the pits and the bleachers. The field, with its bright lights, ping-pong table sized switches and oversized scale, seems to be the center of the action. But the majority of the work happens in the bleachers. The logistics team is given the herculean task of watching each match and cataloging the performances of every robot. This data is then plugged into a program created by recent graduate and current team mentor, Julia Escamilla. This data is communicated to the drive team, who spend their day rushing between the field and the pit. Between each match they check the robot for damage, make whatever repairs they can and strategize for the next match. “We’re playing Davis and Madera,” drive team member Marcos Del Toro told Challender as the team worked to adjust the robot’s front-facing cameras on Saturday afternoon. “With them?” Challender asked. “Against them.” “Just stay here,” Challender told them, which got a few smiles from the team. Davis and Madera high schools were among the highest ranked teams at the tournament. Unless Davis or Madera unexpectedly breaks down 15 seconds into the match, the Winters robot is statistically incapable of scoring more points than them. As the drive team talked through their strategy, freshman Celeste Garcia suggested a previous strategy that had worked. Since they couldn’t beat them by scoring more points, why not try to take away their ability to score? The team decided that instead of going on the offensive, they would play a kind of aggressive defense. They wouldn’t just protect their switch, they would move the cubes away from the stronger teams. Coming up with a strategy as a team is only half the battle. For each qualification match the team is randomly aligned with two other teams. In order to succeed the three teams have to settle on a strategy before each match. After Winters presented their strategy, a member of the other team pointed out that she had watched teams try that before. Sometimes it worked, but she also knew it could backfire. The students went back and forth for a few minutes. Watching them, it’s clear that students need so much more than programing skills or engineering knowledge to compete in a robotics competition. The drive team argued for their strategy with evidence compiled by the logistics team. They listened to the other team’s concerns and found ways to address them. By the end, they had come up with a hybrid of both teams’ ideas. Challender says this wouldn’t have happened a few years ago. When they first started competing, other teams wouldn’t even listen to Winters. He believes that the logistics team has changed that. Winters collects so much accurate data during the qualifying matches, the other teams are now approaching them for guidance. The teams’ strategy worked. When the opposing team realized what was happening they became more aggressive, and began ramming into the Winters robot. It didn’t change anything. The match was such a decisive win that Winters went up ten places in the overall ranking. This is the third competition where they’ve finished in the top five. While that might not sound like a win, it is impressive for their size and funding. Challender says that the team doesn’t need more money, they need stable funding. Stable funding would mean that the team doesn’t have to scramble to find $5000 at the start of each season. It would mean that they could attend more competitions, which would mean more practice. Teams like Davis and Madera aren’t just at the top of the pile of every competition because they could afford to build a Lexus while Winters remakes a Volkswagon bug. The bigger teams make it because they can travel to more competitions. They play hundreds more matches than Winters can attend, and because of that they have more practice. The bigger teams can also often afford to build a second robot. The teams have six weeks to build a robot, and after that they are sealed in plastic until their first competition. The teams do not get to practice with their robots between the tournaments. While Winters is waiting for their first match to drive their robot, other teams have spent weeks working with an identical practice robot. Challender is hoping that Winters will be able to build a practice robot for the next season, which will start in January. The new season will bring with it a new game and a different robot. The team will be coming back with their same enthusiasm.  ]]>

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