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Cool NERDS: Sierra Vista students learn robotics

Thaddeus Bomar (front left), Darryl Thompson and Kevin Smith load T-shirts into Promo Bot, a robot designed and built by the Nifty Engineering Robotics Design Squad, or NERDS, in Veterans' Memorial Park in Sierra Vista. The T-shirts were launched into the crowd during the demonstration while other club members looked on.

Thaddeus Bomar (front left), Darryl Thompson and Kevin Smith load T-shirts into Promo Bot, a robot designed and built by the Nifty Engineering Robotics Design Squad, or NERDS, in Veterans' Memorial Park in Sierra Vista. The T-shirts were launched into the crowd during the demonstration while other club members looked on.

SIERRA VISTA – Like most high schools, Sierra Vista Buena comes with its share of nerds. But at Buena, achieving nerd status can be a good thing.

The Nifty Engineering Robotics Design Squad, or NERDS, is Buena’s very own robotics team. Formed in the fall of 2005 by chemistry teacher Tom Heller, with the help of mentors Kent Cudaback, Dave Tanguay and Jim Forbes, along with a group of interested students, the NERDS have experienced some impressive successes with their robots in a number of competitions.

The three mentors make up the Cochise Robotics Association, an organization founded to help provide the NERDS with the technical and financial support they need to build their robots.

“We’ve participated in competitions every school year, from the time the club was first formed,” said Zach Aragon, a Buena senior who has been a club member for four years.

Along with club president Sean Popping, Aragon is one of the original team members.

During its inception year, the NERDS entered two competitions in the spring of 2006, winning the second one, which was in Sacramento, Calif. It meant traveling to the finals in Atlanta, kicking off a list of successes for Buena’s robotics team. Besides competing, the club puts on demonstrations and camps for local middle school students, an effort to generate more interest in robotics, along with the science and technology that go hand-in-hand with building the projects.

“In the fall of 2006, we competed in the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) competition in Phoenix, and won,” Aragon said. “As a club, we were still pretty new, so it was exciting to be doing that well in the competitions.”

While the robotics team competes in a number of events, it’s the annual competitions sponsored by FIRST that club members look forward to with anticipation. During the first week in January, criteria for the robotic-project are announced. From the time of the announcement, FIRST allows six weeks for students to complete their projects for the annual competition.

“These students put in long hours after school and on weekends to get the robots built in that six-week time frame,” said Monica Schwarz, a Buena math teacher who serves as club sponsor. “They work with engineers and learn about Web design, programming and robot design. It’s an excellent hands-on learning experience for these kids.”

Along with the time crunch, funding is another challenge. The team members hold fundraisers, apply for tax credits through the school district and turn to civic organizations for the financial support they need to pay for different projects.

According to the Cochise Robotics Association, entry fees alone for two regional competitions cost $10,000. Materials for building the robots also are a big expense. The custom-built projects require high quality components and can run up to $5,000 or more for one robot. In addition, travel expenses can climb as high as $15,000, depending on how far the students need to travel.

When local organizations are able to offer financial assistance to help with the projects, it’s a welcome relief for the students. Earlier this month, Cox Charities presented a $10,000 check to Cochise Robotics Association, money to be used by NERDS to build their robots. Tim Cervantes, Cox’s director of operations in Cochise County, presented the check to Cudaback.

“This money was donated by Cox employees in southern Arizona,” Cervantes said. “We look for organizations with a focus on youth, education and technology. The robotics club is exactly the kind of youth organization we have in mind when we’re looking at how to distribute the money we raise.”

The Cochise Robotics Association’s goal is to help raise and disburse funds necessary for the NERDS to design, build and compete in FIRST competitions.

It’s hoped that the experience students glean through different robotic building projects will inspire them to pursue careers in engineering, science and technology.

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