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Newbury Park Team Wins Robotics World Championship

Joseph Pennock, a graduating senior and eight-year robotics competitor, heard the doubters who said he couldn’t win the robotics world championships — he just chose not to believe them.

In April, Joseph and his team of fellow Newbury Park Adventist Academy students (including his freshman sister, Grace) traveled to Houston and bested 191 other teams from places as far-flung as Brazil, Israel and Saudi Arabia, bringing home California’s first robotics crown.

“We just kept winning and winning,” says David Pennock, Joseph’s and Grace’s father, who serves as the team’s co-coach. “You start pinching yourself and saying, ‘Not only are we here, we’re doing well.’”

The self-named “Gatorbytes” squad built their 18-inch robot in an unused classroom at the private Newbury Park high school, which enrolls around 130 students. They designed it not to be the fastest, necessarily, but to be highly versatile and optimized in its movements. Then they extensively scouted the competition, watching previous matches online and adapting their robot to counter their opponents’ approaches.

“We had really good strategies going in,” says Joseph. “We were up late every night strategizing for each match.”

Gatorbytes’ ability to score quickly and disrupt the other team’s robot during autonomous play paid off.

The four-day annual championship in Houston, put on by a not-for-profit organization called FIRST, drew more than 18,000 students from 59 countries this year to compete with team-built robots and showcase innovation skills. For Joseph, it was the culmination of a childhood passion.

He discovered robotics in the fourth grade through a class in his family’s homeschool co-op. The next year, Heidi, his mother, approached a local Adventist school and offered to start and coach a robotics team at their school so Joseph could participate.

Though David and Heidi are longtime teachers in public and private schools in Southern California — David presently teaches math at Westlake High School and Century Academy, and Heidi teaches a third- and fourth-grade combination class at Linda Vista Adventist school in Oxnard — they chose to homeschool Joseph and Grace in grades K-8 and K-7, respectively.

“We did not want to send them to public school,” David says, “and I suggested to my wife that we try homeschooling. She was reluctant. I said, ‘Why don’t we give it a try, and if you don’t like it, we can quit?’ ”

Heidi tried it — and loved it.

“The opportunity to homeschool was amazing,” she says. “The time I got to spend with the kids was precious. I didn’t have to send them off to another teacher. I got to be on their whole elementary journey with them.”

The Pennocks had been inspired by a family at church who homeschooled their boys and produced good young men. Heidi’s only concern was “about what my parents and friends would all say,” she admits with a laugh. “I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness, I don’t want to tell anyone we’re homeschooling. They’ll think we’re crazy.’ But there is such a great community now. We’ve met so many great people. I had this stigma against homeschooling, but it’s very different these days. There are co-ops and all sorts of things.”

Heidi’s mom has become “a huge supporter of homeschooling. She sees it in a whole new light,” Heidi says.

For Joseph, the decision was a godsend. Gifted in math and science, he excelled “as fast and as far as he wanted,” Heidi says. “Homeschooling gave him opportunities he wouldn’t have had in a traditional classroom where he would have had to stay at the pace of the class.”

For Grace, “Homeschooling provided extra time and one-on-one help she wouldn’t have gotten in a private Christian school,” says Heidi. “It allowed us to meet our kids’ education needs right where they needed to be met.”

Coming into his senior year, Joseph, who had taught himself calculus, among other things, began insisting he was going to lead a team that would win the robotics championship — even though his teams had never even advanced to the national competition.

“He told us in the beginning of the year, ‘I’m going to worlds this year. I’m going to win worlds,’ ” Heidi says. “We were like, ‘It’s such a long shot.’ But he said, ‘People are telling me I can’t do it, and I’m going to prove them wrong.’ ”

Joseph became Gatorbytes’ captain and driving force; David and Heidi served as co-coaches but “provided almost zero technical expertise,” says David. The team got a running start last summer, learning new skills and developing sensor technologies to prepare for the season.

Then, in September, FIRST released “the game,” that is, the specific challenge for which teams must design their robots. This year, robots had to pick up cones and stack them on freestanding, stick-like pylons.

The Gatorbytes designed their robot on CAD (computer-aided design), then built or assembled all components, including electrical and mechanical parts and sensors. Some they machined with a giant metal cutter. Team members spent up to 40 or more hours per week working on the robot outside of school.

After five iterations and a host of optimizations intended to increase accuracy and speed, the robot was ready to compete. Though school-affiliated teams like theirs don’t usually do well, Gatorbytes began advancing in local and regional play, beating much-better-funded teams and teams whose coaches or parents worked for institutions like the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. According to David, there are more than 600 robotics teams in California, yet only ten qualified to go to worlds.

Gatorbytes was one of them.

“He told us in the beginning of the year, ‘I’m going to worlds this year.’ “

The 8-member team and supporting family members arrived in Houston in mid-April to compete in a division that allows robots to be a maximum size of 18 inches square. Each match at the Houston competition lasts two-and-a-half minutes. During the first 30 seconds, robots must function autonomously, doing tasks on their own by using sensors. The final two minutes are driver-controlled — two drivers, in fact. One controls the wheels; the other controls the arm and vertical elevator, in this case.

The Gatorbytes team had boosted their robot’s speed using a system in which the wheels spin at different rates, allowing the unit to turn corners more quickly. Designing each of the sub-systems “forced us to problem-solve, to think about different ways to approach problems from a strategic standpoint that would give us an advantage,” Joseph says. “It’s the little things. The details matter — and the math, the science, the engineering.”

Gatorbytes won their division of 48 teams, and victory came into view. The competition structure requires teams to form “alliances” in later rounds to promote teamwork. Gatorbytes captained the winning alliance that included two other teams named Quality Control and Don’t Blink. In the championship rounds, Gatorbytes’ alliance went 8-1 and defeated the defending world champions in the last round by a score of 2 games to 0.

The final victory was so dominant as to be nearly anticlimactic.

“As soon as we found out [we] won, everybody burst into tears,” Heidi says. “Joseph came directly to me and said, ‘I told you we could do it.’ It was really special. As a mom, I know how many hours he put into this team. There were nights he was frustrated and struggling with something, and we were the ones that saw that part of the journey. I’m proud of the whole team.”

With international recognition in the robotics community, Joseph is now fielding requests from teams in India, Brazil, Mexico and Hong Kong who want to meet him via Zoom and get advice on their robots.

“To be able to say you’re the world champion and the first team from California to win is pretty special,” he says.

Back in Newbury Park, the Academy celebrated the team’s win at a school assembly, and the principal gave the whole school donuts.

Joseph has aged out of the FIRST robotics competition and plans to mentor local teams. In the fall, he will begin studying computer engineering and mechanical engineering at Walla Walla University in Washington state.

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