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Team Berkelium Excels in Competition


Whirs and buzzes filled the room as oversized red and blue tennis balls flew through the air, lobbed by none other than a robot named SQUID. Five members representing Team Berkelium, Berkeley High School’s (BHS) robotics team, presented their robot to members of the Berkeley Rotary Club on April 13. The audience was comprised of Rotary members attending both in person and over Zoom.

Team Berkelium started off the 2021-22 school year with only ten members, but by talking to friends, visiting classrooms, and bringing their robot to the BHS’s Club Fair, the team has grown to a membership of over 40 students.

“It’s a pretty big achievement for us that the robotics team has grown so much and done so well in such a short amount of time, and we’re excited for next year,” said Nikola Simon, a senior in Berkeley International High School (BIHS) who manages business and logistics for the team. 

Each year, the For the Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) Robotics Competition (FRC) challenges high school robotics teams from around the world to create industrial robots that can meet the unique game requirements posed by the competition. 

“In the winter, there is kickoff, where FIRST posts the new game rules, and you have six weeks to build a robot that is competitive for that game,” explained James Underwood, a junior in Academic Choice (AC) who manages fabrication of the robots. 

Though FRC competitions occur during March and early April, the team began building their robot in January and only finished shortly before the deadline. 

“Many hundreds of hours were put into [building SQUID, as well as] blood, sweat, and tears. Quite literally, there are some sharp edges on the robot,” joked Underwood.

“This year, we had to shoot these oversized tennis balls into an 8-foot-tall funnel in the center of a basketball court-sized arena, and we also had to essentially do monkey bars that started at about 5 feet and ended at about 7 or 8 feet, with a steady incline,” said Underwood. 

SQUID has six-arms, — hence the name — allowing Team Berkelium’s robot to maximize its speed as it moves between monkey-bars. SQUID’s highly unique design is just one example of the creativity required for robotics. 

“Every time you talk to … [someone] on the robotics team, they’ll have some idea that you’ve never thought of before. Some idea that you think is impractical, or crazy or outlandish, and they’ll make it work,” said Simon.

Team Berkelium attended three FRC competitions this year, and “made it to the semifinals at each of [the] competitions this season,” according to Karan Bhakta, a senior in BIHS who manages the electrical sub-team. In their most recent competition, the team competed against some of the best teams in the world, and ultimately placed eighth out of the 60 teams.

Teaching robotics to new recruits is an important part of Team Berkelium’s culture. 

“Having the opportunity to show [new members] what robotics is, show them how to build the robot, see them grow throughout the year and see them learn new skills, find passions and be able to instill your own passion within them is something…that’s really important to me, and something FIRST Robotics has allowed me to do,” said Simon. 

Team Berkelium won the Autonomous Award at FRC’s Sacramento Regionals this year for their programming of their robot for the autonomous period, a 15-second period in the competition where the robot moves and shoots tennis balls without any human involvement.

The Berkeley Rotary Club has given the BHS robotics team grants over the years, and is one of several sponsors enabling Team Berkelium to buy the materials they need to create their highly sophisticated robots. 

“It’s really nice to become invested in the community more, with people who we don’t normally interact with, and [the Rotary Club was] a big part of our journey this year,” said Underwood. “It’s nice to be able to give back to them [and] show what they’ve provided us,” Underwood added.

Some of Team Berkelium’s goals for next school year include building more robots in the off-season, upping their community outreach, and going to middle schools to teach younger kids about STEM. 

“[I’d like to] start another team somewhere, because I’d really love to be able to provide that to another area, not just Berkeley,” said Underwood.