Wooden robot steers cash-strapped Richmond rookies to world championships

When the Burnett secondary robotics team pressured their teacher into entering the Canadian Pacific Regional Championships in Victoria, they barely had enough cash to build a robot.

Seeded last of 35 in a competition awash with decorated and richly sponsored rivals from around the world, the first hurdle for the rookie team’s cheap and cheerful 125-pound, 30-square-inch wooden invention was passing the pre-event inspection.

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“We really weren’t sure it was going to pass. There’s a very strict list of things you have to have; size, pinch safety, electrical, there are two pages of boxes to be checked,” said tech teacher Wes Bevan, who’s guided the team since it decided to enter four months ago.

“We had stuff that we needed for the checklist that didn’t show up until we were in Victoria, so we had to go shopping over there for fabric for our (robot’s) bumpers.”

Fast forward to the climax of the two-day event last weekend and the eight-strong Burnett team – mostly Grade 11s – stood together, staring at the giant scoreboard waiting for the results of their final match to be posted.

The scores flashed up and, to their amazement, Burnett, allied with number one seed Hawaii and New Zealand, had shocked everyone by winning the team alliance category and were on their way to the world championships in Houston, TX next month.

“One minute, we were planning to pack up and get back to Richmond, the next we were planning for Houston!” said a still astonished Bevan on Thursday.

“When the score flashed up, I was like ‘yes,’ and then I was like, ‘oh, how we going to fund this?’”

The boys are now desperately trying to fund the $5,000 (U.S.) entry fee for the world finals and the estimated $12,000 (U.S.) flight, accommodation and food costs.

By Thursday, they’d raised about half, thanks to non-profit science organization First Canada, which hosted the Victoria event, and through private donors.

They are crowdfunding via this link.

“They’ve been cold-calling local businesses desperately trying to pull together the funds,” said Burnett principal Wennie Walker.

“This was a total surprise, so there has been no fundraising. We are very proud of them here at the school.”

As well as the frantic fundraising, Bevan and Walker now have only a few days to get the paperwork in place for the group to travel to Houston, where they will compete with up to 300 teams from 72 countries.

“To put things into perspective, the school is going on an international field trip in five days and it took four months to do that paperwork; we’re doing it in five days,” added Bevan.

Asked why, in more than 20 years of teaching tech at Burnett he’d never entered the competition, Bevan said, “logistically, it’s always been difficult. And it’s very costly. It’s a big commitment.”

“Originally, I said ‘no’ then the kids pushed for it and then I jumped on it. They pushed hard enough so I said ‘ok.’”

One of the team members, Chris Lam, Grade 11, said once the competition got going – and it became apparent their wooden robot was serious – competitors started to take notice.

“We realized, ‘hey, we’re not that bad’ and people wanted to have us on their team (for the alliance category),” said Chris, explaining that points are scored during match-ups by completing tasks and also using your robot to disrupt competitors.

Fellow team member Riley Lewis, also Grade 11, added that their robot – to be named The Wooden Warrior or The Ghetto Bot – “could do stuff that few others could. Most teams focused on scoring, our main focus was defending.”

Four teams from B.C., including Burnett, qualified for the world finals on April 17-20.

“I’m pretty sure there will be no other robot like it at the Worlds,” laughed Bevan.

Anyone able to help the boys get to Texas should email the school’s principal at Wwalker@sd38.bc.ca.

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