On Fridays after school, when you might expect students to be going straight home after a long week of learning, almost a quarter of the student body stays on campus until 7 p.m. for robotics. The team’s presence is visible all around the school: the back hallway is lined with field elements and old robots, the huge royal blue banner over the I-Lab doorway proclaims “Woodie Flowers Finalist Award”, and in school-wide Kahoots, there’s always at least one player named “Join Team 4904!” This year, despite their constant hard work and enthusiasm, none of the members of Team 4904: Bot-Provoking were expecting to receive the Chairman’s Award at this year’s San Francisco Regional, especially after the competition season ground to a disappointing halt following the shift to remote learning and the cancellation of this year’s challenge. This is the first time the team has won this award, though they have received multiple other awards in their seven-year history, including the Gracious Professionalism and Entrepreneurship awards.

“It was more of, ‘Let’s get used to the [Chairman’s Award] application process for when we think we’re actually going to win it,’” said team co-captain Billy Pierce ‘20, who had been in robotics since freshman year. “So this totally blindsided all of us.”

For the Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) is the global robotics community which organizes multiple competitions every year, including the Chairman’s Award,” described as “the most prestigious award at FIRST, [which] honors the team that best represents a model for other teams to emulate and best embodies the mission of FIRST” on their website. Though there are multiple other awards that represent the more technical aspects of the competition, the Chairman’s award is more focused on outreach, specifically initiatives taken by the team within the last five years to spread FIRST’s ideals in their community.

I-Lab Engineer and Quest Co-Director John Feland, who was close to FIRST’s founder Woodie Flowers and participated in one of the first First Robotics Competition (FRC) challenges, believes that Team 4904 exemplifies these ideals and more.

“Winning Chairman’s today… shows that you’re the best all around team for [your region],” Feland said just after the winners were announced. “It’s acknowledgement from the FIRST community that… Bot Provoking, 4904, personifies that inspiration, that recognition.”

Since the team’s creation seven years ago, they have embarked on various outreach initiatives, such as [Drones for Good, FLL].

“The Chairman’s award rewards our team’s core mission—to support students through meaningful and collaborative experiences… We prioritize education and learning over winning competitions,” said Elliot Chin ‘21. Chin, who is outreach and design lead, and helped write the application essay, believes that the team’s unique structure helped set them apart.

“We are completely student-run and student-led,” said co-captain Tara Saxena ‘21. “The culture is one that values inclusion and giving all members opportunities to get involved in different areas of the team.”

Alum Julienne Ho ‘19, who just completed her first year at Scripps College and who was on the team for 2 years, remembers the community that the team built, recalling a moment she shared with her teammates at last season’s Sacramento Regionals. 

“I was out playing touch football with Cevi and Nikhil and Robby… And most of us sucked at it… But it was totally fine to suck at it, because we were all sucking together. I think that was emblematic of the spirit of the team,” she said. “Struggling with others, prioritizing fun and learning new things over winning or performing well.”

A typical robotics meeting begins with everyone packed into a room in the I-Lab, listening as the co-captains and subteam leaders give updates. Then everyone splits off into subteams to work on agenda items. Throughout, faculty mentor Michelle Grau walks from room to room to check on how everyone’s doing and take attendance, letting students take leadership roles while also being present to answer any questions.

Every FRC team has mentors, or adults that supervise and help lead students. Some mentors are extremely involved in the brainstorming and building process, providing feedback and their own expertise. Bot-Provoking’s mentor, Michelle Grau, also an I-Lab engineer, takes a more hands-off, behind-the-scenes approach, taking care of logistical issues and offering help and advice when students ask for it.

Grau’s leadership has left lasting impressions on alumni, too. When the team held their first online robotics meeting, 19 alumni joined the Zoom call.

“I am super thankful for Michelle Grau, our mentor,” Ho said. “She is one of the most incredible people I’ve ever met. She is why I decided to pursue a degree in engineering, and I don’t know how to describe her, but I love her a lot.”

Besides guaranteeing the team a spot at the championships next year, the award is also a morale-booster and a reminder about the importance of non-technical aspects of the competition. 

“I try to push the team more towards… being focused on robotics as more than just building a robot,” Pierce said. He described how outreach can seem unimportant, or not as crucial as building the actual robot and competing. “I think [receiving the Chairman’s Award] helps make the amount of work we’ve been putting in tangible.”

Still, though the award is evidence of Bot-Provoking’s hard work and growing impact, the team’s greatest strength lies in making each member feel valued and capable while doing something they’re passionate about.

“While winning awards is nice… the most rewarding moments for me as a teacher are the ones where someone learns something new,” said Grau. “At the end of the day, it’s about making connections with students, so many of my rewarding moments are also in the little things—when some freshmen offered me bread they somehow managed to make in the panini press, making bumper fabric scrunchies with some sophomores, joking around with juniors and seniors over everything from spelling to making lime lights.”

The team will go on to compete in next season’s championships. They held weekly online meetings through the rest of the semester after the transition to remote learning.