Teacher Daniel Conrad didn’t know whether his Native American students at Navajo Mountain High School could build a robot.
To be honest, no one at this small, isolated school near the Utah-Arizona border knew what they were doing when a robotics kit arrived and the countdown to a regional competition began.
“The students didn’t think they could do it,” said Conrad, who teaches science, engineering, digital arts and drama at the school, which is located on the Navajo Nation and serves only 32 students. “For a while, I didn’t think they could do it. None of us has ever built a robot before.”
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It all started when Macquarie University in Australia contacted the school and offered to sponsor a rookie robotics team and pay for its journey to a regional competition. Team 6546 Naatsis’áán Robotics accepted the challenge, but when the box of parts arrived, students started having second thoughts.
“We pulled things out of the box and we had no idea what anything was,” Conrad said. “It took us a week to realize what the computer was. The only instructions were how to put together the frame and we did that wrong at least five times.”
But these Native American students are used to challenges, and what they lacked in technical know-how they more than made up for in creativity, innovation and perspiration. Located between Monument Valley and Page, Arizona, Navajo Mountain or Naatsis’áán, which is the original Navajo name for Navajo Mountain, is home to 300 people, many of whom don’t have running water or electricity at home.
Residents here often define remoteness by how long it takes to get places. The nearest gas station is 35 miles; the nearest grocery store is 100 miles; and if they need to get to a Home Depot, that’s 170 miles each way. For a high school robotics team, that meant anything they needed they had to build themselves.
“We’re so isolated that it’s not feasible to make the drive to get something we need,” Conrad said. “The nearest hardware store is a day away, so any solution we needed we had to make ourselves. We couldn’t just buy our way out of something.”
In fact, a snowstorm delayed delivery of the robot kit by a week. Once the competition is announced, teams have six weeks to build, program and prepare their robots for competition.
Navajo Mountain students used a cheap ratchet set, hand saws and a welder to fabricate their robot out of scraps. They also learned from scratch how to build, wire and program the robot—all in less time than other schools had.
“I think our biggest challenge was that no one knew how to build a robot,” said 17-year-old Damian King, a senior at Navajo Mountain and a repairman on the robotics team. “The instructions told us it had to have gears and it had to climb a rope, but we had no idea how to make that work. To overcome all this, everyone just worked together, put in their input and ideas about certain parts of the robot, and it all came together.”
Nahida Smith, a 15-year-old sophomore, was tasked with getting the robot to move, climb a rope and stay on the defensive.
“The first challenge was that I had to learn how to program with Java in one day,” she said. “The second challenge was that I had to figure out by myself how to get the program to do things, how to make sure it was still working right while we were competing with other teams.”
The innovation paid off, with half of Navajo Mountain’s student population pitching in. Naatsis’áán Robotics took its robot to the Utah Regional FIRST Robotics Competition in Salt Lake City in early March, where it won the Rookie Inspiration Award.
In its 12-year history, the Utah competition has never hosted a robotics team from an Indian reservation, said Mark Minor, the organizing chair of FIRST Robotics of Utah. Minor, who is also an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Utah, called Naatsis’áán Robotics an inspiration.
“As a rookie team, it’s really hard to get the process jumpstarted,” he said. “For a team in such a remote area, it’s even more difficult. It takes a lot of determination to build something from the ground up. This team can be a role model for the rest of the world.”
Three weeks after the Utah competition, the team contended in the Idaho Regional FIRST Robotics Competition, where it came in ninth overall—out of 38 teams—and took home the Rookie All-Star Award and the Highest Rookie Seed Award. The team also qualified for the world championship—one of 600 teams selected out of a total 7,000 worldwide.
The world competition takes place April 19-22 in Houston. The school already raised $10,000 to fund the trip. Conrad hopes Naatsis’áán Robotics team members snag some scholarships during the world championships.
“This is not just a robot competition,” he said. “It’s about enabling kids to go as high as they can go.”
Meanwhile, Navajo Mountain High School is already gearing up for its second year in the robotics circuit. Conrad hopes his team’s success inspires other reservation schools. “We want to be the first team on the Navajo reservation, but we don’t want to be the only team,” he said.