Ascend Leadership Academy students put in after-school practice on their robot as they prepare for the team’s next competition against other school’s in FIRST Robotics. Photos by Billy Liggett

By Billy Liggett

It’s been 30 minutes since the final bell rang at Ascend Leadership Academy, but the fun is just beginning in a cleared-out classroom at Ascend Academy. Six students have pushed all the desks and chairs to the side to make room for a rubber mat, a bucket of plastic balls and rubber duckies, and a four-wheeled robot fully charged and ready for work.

Garyn McGuire, Dillan Fox, Oliver Jacobs, J.B. Medina, Amy Salvador and Logan Duffy are here to get to know this robot that they built from the ground up better. They’re part of Ascend’s FIRST Robotics team, which in January entered its first competition against (and teaming with) other high school students to see whose robot could best perform certain tasks, using those aforementioned balls and ducks.

It’s the ultimate combination of science and sports. Technology and teamwork. And for these students, it’s worth the extra hours they’re putting into it after school.

“I’ve always really loved robotics, and when I found out we were doing this program and doing it to compete in a real competition, I was in,” said McGuire, a sophomore who started building his first store-bought robotics kits when he was in elementary school. “[After high school], I want to do something along the lines of mechanical engineering, and this is great training for that. It’s something that I love, something that’s fun, and I’m also learning as we do it.”

Ascend’s first competition was technically a “scrimmage,” held at Elon University in early January and featuring schools from all over the state, many of which have been competing for several years. Despite the lack of experience and true practice area — and with a limited budget — Ascend’s team finished second in the finals and left Elon as the fourth-ranked team overall.

It was an impressive showing, and for first-year Ascend teacher and robotics coach Tina Fox, the showing went a long way in building confidence and enthusiasm for a group of kids who weren’t necessarily used to being a part of a “team” before this program arrived.

“It’s important at Ascend that we have programs that welcome these kids,” Fox said. “We have sports here, but we wanted something for those who are more interested in technology or coding. We have a gaming club here, and it’s popular. We’re hoping this can build into something like that.”

Fox’s son Dillan is one of the eight total members on the team, two of which are middle schoolers who aren’t eligible for the competitions, but are getting the experience nonetheless. The freshman hopes to see the program grow in the coming years, and he’s ready to help lead that growth.

“I’m just hoping to see more people interested in it, because I see a lot of potential with a program like this,” he said. “I believe this is the direction learning is going. The more advanced we get in our technology, the more people we’ll need who are able to do things like this.”

Garyn McGuire, Dillan Fox, Oliver Jacobs, J.B. Medina, Amy Salvador and Logan Duffy are part of Ascend Leadership Academy’s first FIRST Robotics team, which enjoyed a trip to the finals in its first competition at Elon University in January.

The “things like this” involves the building of the robot (mechanical engineering), the programming of the robot (coding), the strategy component of the competitions (sports and teamwork) and even the branding (marketing) of the robot and the team. Team names lead to T-shirts. T-shirts become uniforms. Groups become teams. It’s a big part of why FIRST Robotics competitions across the country are drawing thousands of kids. Large-scale competitions are often held in arenas, and the noise and atmosphere can match a college basketball game at its peak.

On this day, Ascend’s team is taking turns operating the robot with a Playstation-style controller. Each student is navigating the robot through a terrain that includes obstacles and barriers, looking for objects to pick up or scoop up and drop into a three-tier shelf for points. In a competition, schools form alliances. The robot is playing both offense to score and defense to keep others from earning points.

“The best part of the competition was meeting the other teams and seeing their robots,” Tina Fox said. “You see what each team’s strengths and weaknesses are, and they’re more than happy to share this with you. It’s a very generous community — so many people were eager to help us, because they knew we were a rookie team.”

Robotics was never part of Fox’s plan when she stepped away from her career in web design during the start of the pandemic to become a teacher. As she works toward her certification, she’s teaching electives at Ascend, a charter school off of N.C. 87 in the southern part of Sanford that currently enrolls students in grades 6-11. Next fall, the school will add 12th grade and is projected to have a total enrollment of 560 students.

The idea for the team sprung from her Introduction to Coding class, one of several project-based learning courses at the school. She registered the school with FIRST, and the ball rolled from there.

“It’s just a really great skill set for them to learn,” she said. “I’ve already been in contact with professors and instructors at Central Carolina Community College, and hopefully we can talk about ways of incorporating something like this into early college credits. I’d even love to see robotics become part of the regular curriculum here. There’s just so much these kids have learned and that I’ve learned from doing this for such a short time. We’re excited to see where it goes from here.”