Serving as team captain of Philomath High School’s robotics team, Rafi Grossman-Naples has enjoyed his experiences through the creation of a robot to compete in statewide competitions. The only senior within the local contingent known as PHRED, Grossman-Naples shares in the highs and lows with fellow students.

“It’s been a way for me to interact with my peers in a way that I haven’t gotten to a lot otherwise,” said Grossman-Naples, who has been isolated from the student body as a former home-schooled student who now takes classes through PHS off campus at Linn-Benton Community College. “It’s been great just for making friends and hanging out with people who have similar interests.”

And that’s a commonality among the students that participate in an activity that dates back locally to 2002.

“I’m not really involved in any other activity so it’s just a way to be with a group of people that I share a common interest with and make new friends,” sophomore Neil King said. “It’s a good way to collaborate and build something as a group.”

Anna Wiger, a freshman whose family recently moved here, also sees robotics as a social activity.

“It’s been a big part of my year, having events at school where we get to be a part of a team,” Wiger said. “We get to celebrate and hang out together. It’s just a really nice place to be.”

PHRED, an acronoym for Philomath High Robotics Engineering Division, has seen a lot of students come and go through the years. Fifteen years ago, PHRED advanced all the way to the FIRST Robotics Challenge nationals in Atlanta.

Mentor Tom Thompson has volunteering with the program since the beginning and as such, he has a lot of experience seeing students take on the challenges that robotics offers.

“It’s a challenge to know the skills to be able to build,” Thompson said. “We have a couple of kids this year, one kid that’s learning how to do some machining, so he’s actually been able to machine some parts and that’s a skill that we haven’t had before. We’ve got a couple of kids that are really picking up on the electrical side of things.”

Another obstacle to overcome involves coming up with an effective strategy and that comes with experience in competitions.

“Since some of these kids haven’t been to a competition before, just understanding what that looks like and what that feels like and how do you get ready for it?” Thompson said. “The first competition is always a little shaky because things aren’t quite together. But by the time the second one comes around, they’ve got a list of things in their heads of what they need to get done and how they need to move forward.”

PHRED’s season ended this past weekend at a qualifier competition at Lake Oswego. Philomath did not finish among the top 64 in the Pacific Northwest Division, which includes 151 teams, to be able to advance to this week’s regionals. Team 847 came in 31st with a record of 4-8 and wasn’t selected to participate in a finals competition alliance.

PHRED earned the Gracious Professionalism Award for the Lake Oswego competition.

Back in its first meet earlier in the month at Wilsonville, PHRED went 7-5 to place 12th and did go into the final alliances but lost in the first round.

PHRED’s FIRST Robotics Challenge team includes 15 students. Within the entire program, which includes the FIRST Tech Challenge team, there are about 20 involved. Thompson said the program costs between $15,000 and $20,000 a year.

“It’s all sponsors and we do some fundraising and grants, so that’s the entire funding,” Thompson said.

In this year’s game, “Destination Deep Space,” the robots load cargo, or balls, and can also install hatches to hold that cargo in place. Platforms of various heights are part of the course that robots work through to pick up points.

The team’s each year have only so many days to build robots before they have to bag it, although the rules will be changing next season.

“One of the things we tend to run out of time for is having the drivers get some practice,” Thompson said about the build season. “In past years, we’ve built a second robot but this year with time and money, we just didn’t feel like we could get there with a second robot.”

The upcoming changes will allow the teams to take out its robot to practice.

“That was one of our biggest things — more time to get some practice in,” Thompson said. “Because when the kids went up to our first competition in Wilsonville, they got really progressively better after each match. So you could tell that the practice time is really important.”

Grossman-Naples joined robotics three years ago as part of the FIRST Tech Challenge team.

“I just loved the attitude surrounding it,”Grossman-Naples said when asked why he enjoys the activity so much. “I love that the robotics program puts an emphasis on treating others with respect and competing fairly and I love being able to work with my hands and work with the team.”

The students put in a lot of hours leading up to the spring competitions. In fact, they get together five out of the seven days in a week. So when competitions arrive, is it scary to put it all on the line?

“It’s a little terrifying, especially in that I’m on the drive team and what I do actually matters!” Grossman-Naples said. “So it’s a little scary but I get to the competition and it’s fun. It’s such a rush to be able to go out there and do that stuff all day.”

Grossman-Naples has embraced the role of team captain.

““I have to do a lot of coordinating and delegating and sometimes it’s like herding cats, but it’s been a great learning experience,” he said.

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