Robotics with Heart

Parker students put STEM education into practice.
It all started with one teacher’s idea to launch a new computer science program.
In fall 2007, Upper School science teacher Ryan Griggs founded the after-school robotics club with just 10 students.
Today, Team 2485, better known as the W.A.R. Lords (We Are Robot Lords), is one of the most popular Upper School clubs, with a string of regional and national awards to its credit and a crew of loyal professional mentors and corporate sponsors. The W.A.R Lords  will enter their 10th competition season this year.
“I love this team more than words can say,” said Olia Javidi, a senior who serves as co-president of the team with classmate Ben Clark. “I’ve put countless hours into this team. Because of it, Iʼve gained so many skills.”
Through participation on the team, students gain exposure to more than just hard science.
“The program really acts like a small business,” Mr. Griggs said.
“If there is something you want to do professionally, the robotics team will give you a chance to practice. Students write grant proposals, reach out to sponsors, manage social media and work on graphic design, photography and videography. And they program code for apps and websites besides building a competitive robot.”
Ben Clark, Class of 2017, joined the W.A.R. Lords at the start of his sophomore year and has enjoyed putting his academic lessons into practice.
“I was taking AP computer science,” he said. “You learn all this abstract stuff, and I wanted to learn how to apply it to real science. The whole organization has really changed the way I think about community, technology and science.”
Beyond their passion for math, science and logic, members of the W.A.R. Lords are united by a drive for public service and a desire to fuel interest in technology among students across San Diego County.
“Our saying is ‘We are champions of legacy’,” said Mr. Griggs. “Team members have to look at what they want to leave behind to help the community.”
This has translated into thousands of community service hours. The W.A.R. Lords performed more than 1,000 hours in just one six-month period last school year.
In the past decade, the team has helped launch and mentor several community-based robotics efforts and hosted summer robotics camps for elementary and middle school students. Members also organized Family Science Nights around the county, where they conducted hands-on science demonstrations with younger children.
For its work in advancing appreciation for robotics in the local community, the W.A.R. Lords captured the “Engineering Inspiration Award” at the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition in Orange County in April 2016.
“We are a team that recognizes the importance of spreading STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education and really making a positive impact throughout our community,” said Olia.
“We are able to take the amazing opportunities we’ve been given as a part of both FIRST and Parker and channel that into programs like RoboCamp, Project Mercy (building homes in Mexico) and mentorship to other FIRST teams,” she said.
The W.A.R. Lords are equally proud that the team sends 100 percent of its members to college, with 87 percent of them majoring in STEM-related fields.
The annual FIRST challenge fuels high achievement among team members. Each year, the W.A.R. Lords receive a box of parts to build a new robot for the FIRST Robotics Competition, which is promoted as the “the ultimate sport for the mind.”
The team gets just six weeks to complete the assigned challenge of building and programming an industrial-size robot to perform in competition.
From the parts kit, the 2015-2016 team built Orion, a 28-inch-long, 26-inch-wide, 14-inch-tall, 120-pound robot. Orion was programmed to maneuver through a competition field, avoiding obstacles to scoop up 10-inch balls and fire them into goals. The robot performed exceptionally well.
The W.A.R. Lords earned not one but two Engineering Inspiration Awards and were propelled to World Championship competition with NASA sponsorship. The team also qualified for the championships in 2013 and 2014, competing against 600 U.S. and foreign teams.
“We had a whole entourage of parents, supporters and teachers,” said Mary Tobin ’16, former team co-president.
At the April competition, Orion was ranked number 18 out of the 75 best robots in the world. While the W.A.R. Lords did not make the playoffs, they did win the prestigious Industrial Design Award and were one of only four teams selected for the honor.
The award, sponsored by General Motors, celebrates “form and function in an efficiently designed machine that effectively addresses the game challenge.” It was the last in a series of five engineering awards that the team claimed.
“This speaks to the strides in the growth of the Parker robotics program. We have won all five of these awards in the last four years, most of them multiple times,” said Mr. Griggs.
But mastering technology and science arenʼt the only things that matter. Breaking down the gender barrier is important, too.
“Something we noticed when we were freshmen was that only about 20 percent of the members were girls,” said Anoushka Bose ’16. “Women leaders on the team founded Women of W.A.R. Lords, called WOW. We are trying to close the gender gap in STEM.”
Added Mary, “We bring in guest speakers, including mothers who work in technology or the business side of technology.”
In the past season, girls comprised 37 percent of the team and 63 percent of its leadership.
Most, but not all, of the non-faculty mentors are Parker parents who share their expertise in programming, engineering, strategy, statistics, business and web design. Among the dedicated parent mentors is Melissa Fay, co-founder of a video technology company, who has coached team members on producing videos to showcase their work and helped prepare them for competition.
“We have one mentor, Mr. Tom Wetherald, a retired Navy captain who is now with NASSCO,” Mary said. “His joke is that his son, Ian, graduated in 2011, but he didn’t graduate. He’s still with us.”
In addition to bringing in strong mentors, the W.A.R. Lords have expanded on their success by recruiting and involving sponsors, including Qualcomm, Integrant, Seacoast Commerce Bank, Evolution Projects, New Blue FX, Trestle Energy, General Dynamics and MakerPlace.
Ben, who helped program last yearʼs robot Orion, talked about the W.A.R. Lords’ philosophy.
“It is an amazingly cooperative atmosphere,” he said. “We are a student-led, mentor-guided program.”
Francis Parker School is a private, independent, coeducational, college preparatory day school for students in Junior Kindergarten through Grade 12 from across San Diego County. Founded in 1912, the Lower School is located on the Mission Hills Campus with the Upper and Middle Schools on the Linda Vista Campus. Parker's mission is to inspire a diverse community of independent thinkers whose academic excellence, global perspective and strength of character prepare them to make a meaningful difference in the world.

Mission Hills Campus Lower School

4201 Randolph Street
San Diego, CA 92103

Linda Vista Campus Middle/Upper School

6501 Linda Vista Road
San Diego, CA 92111
858 / 569-7900