Saint Raphael Academy’s robotics team was at the FIRST Tech Challenge qualifier meet in January just to enjoy the event, according to junior Sam Wells.

After all, it was their first time ever competing. The small team as a group didn’t have much experience with robotics, but lots of interest and drive. And after eight hours of inspections, presentations, strategizing and playing qualifying matches, the awards ceremony began.

They were not expecting much. “We were there just to have fun because we didn’t think we were going to qualify,” he said.

As event officials announced the award winners, the list of those securing a spot in the state finals became clear. According to FIRST rules, however, if a team wins two awards, they cannot hold two spots in states. Instead, other teams may advance up the ladder.

Finally, the last team moving on to the state championship was announced:

“You’re not going to believe this. Team 22762, Saint Raybots, from Saint Raphael Academy!”

“I was so happy I almost started crying,” junior Gianna Gomes said. “I don’t think we believed it.”

Perhaps it was divine intervention, but Saint Raphael Academy’s robotics team had done what none of them thought possible.


A Slow Start

Saints’ team is one of 30 registered teams from around Rhode Island to compete in POWERPLAY, the 2022-2023 season of FIRST Tech Challenge. Some schools with especially robust programs sponsor multiple teams.

The SRA Robotics Club began in 2019-20, with the goal of entering the FIRST Tech Challenge (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) competition, a national program that encourages interest in science and technology in school students.

However, the pandemic led to difficulties with holding meetings and competing over the 2020 and 2021 seasons. Last fall, junior Nicole Salazar was looking for a way to gain experience building robots before applying to colleges, so she approached Principal Dan Richard. He was excited at the renewed interest in the club and enlisted her to recruit members.

She rallied several students who were in the club last year, mostly juniors. While they had some familiarity with the competition, none of them had participated in this type of event before. Nicole became captain of the team, coordinating the programming and mechanics groups in their activities and “making sure everybody is on board,” she said.

She also assisted with a FIRST grant application by writing the essay section. The grant was awarded, and the team was able to buy additional parts to improve their robot’s performance.

This season, the Robotics Club developed a mentor-mentee relationship with The Wheler School, whose seasoned team Electric Quahogs provided advice and parts for Saints to work with. The team also benefitted from its advisers, Mr. Richard and Brian Taveira, SRA’s IT director.

“I think, honestly, it is all about building connections, too, with people because it is a competition, but you get to learn from the other people. We didn’t know what type of robot we wanted …,” said Nicole.  A “field trip” to the RI Holiday Battle Scrimmage in November gave them the chance to watch other teams interpret the idea of the perfect robot to handle the tasks on the game field.

“I think it really helps being surrounded by the community that we are in,” she said.

After several months spent planning, learning coding and mechanics, and building, Saints was ready to give it a try.


FIRST in Rhode Island

FIRST is the international youth-serving non-profit that encourages STEM education for students from ages 4-18. Participants in each of FIRST’s three programs are given a new game challenge every year. Students as young as 9 may begin competing with FIRST LEGO League, using LEGOS to build small tabletop robots.

Saints participates in FIRST Tech Challenge, building a small robot under 18 inches within strict specifications in the game manual. Each season has a theme and a problem-solving component, in addition to robot game play. In this year’s challenge, called POWERPLAY, teams gain an understanding of sustainable energy that specifically “addresses global challenges related to United Nations Sustainable Development Goal #7—focused on ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all,” according to FIRST’s website.

Each team researches the season’s theme, builds and codes a moving robot, and develops strategy for gameplay. They must keep an engineering notebook of all the team’s decision-making throughout the season, including robot design and programming. At competition, teams presents their work to a panel of volunteer judges, explaining their thought process and problem solving.

“We were somewhat unprepared, but the judges actually loved our team!” said Gianna. “Since we hadn’t prepared notecards, it seemed very natural since we just knew what we needed to talk about off the top of our heads. They asked us questions about the programming, the building, our process, and the various obstacles throughout our process.”

Saints represented themselves very well. “Our team of volunteer judges were so impressed with the diligence your team offered,” wrote Erin Flynn, FIRST Tech Challenge Partner, in an email. Saint Raybots found out later that day that they were awarded the Outstanding Rookie Team Award.

After the judges presentations, each team is placed in random alliances with other teams. Alliances work together to move and capture objects on the playing field to earn points in 2 minutes and 30 seconds. First, the robot moves via an autonomous program to earn points in 30 seconds. Second, the robot is under control by a student driver for the following two minutes.


Ready for the Finals

“It was really fun. It was really stressful, though,” said Sam.

The stress paid off in the long run. While at the end of the day, it seemed that Saint Raybots was not high enough in the team rankings to advance to the state finals, that soon changed. According to the competition rules, teams that receive a judges’ award advance to the state tournament, in addition to the teams from the winning alliances in the playoffs. Teams can win more than one award but cannot hold multiple slots in the advancement ladder. This opened up some spots for highest-ranked teams in the qualifying matches to rise on the ladder, including SRA.

Saints played six matches and had a record of 3-3-0, ranking 19th, originally, but soon they moved up to the 9th position. As they were highest ranked, but not previously advanced, they suddenly qualified.

Back from the competition, the team was energized by the qualifier and worked with renewed purpose to prepare for the state competition.

“We’re going to rework [the robot] and improve what went well and then add in a mechanical arm to reach the taller parts in the challenge,” explained Sam. They are currently building a claw that can pick up cones on the playing field—something they didn’t have at the qualifier in January.

Still, it is a trial-and-error process. Nicole explained that their wheels kept falling off. The new ones they are installing are a Caterpillar-type and will not only hold better but allow them to turn in multiple directions.

“That’s ok,” she laughed, “we learn.”


The team will compete at the state FIRST Robotics Competition on Saturday, March 4, at New England Institute of Technology. The event is free and open to the public.