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McFarland High's Pack Bots robotic team picking up where it left off before COVID

Yasir Rubio gets excited about the parts, especially when he can put them together.

As the builder for the McFarland High School Vex Robotics team, known as the Pack Bots, Rubio is in his element when he and the rest of his squad construct and refine their robot for competitions.

Two years ago, as eighth graders at McFarland Junior High School, Rubio and teammates Francisco Vejar, the robot driver, Eric Ontiveros, the notetaker, and Arturo Gonzalez, the programmer, were just discovering their passion for building and engineering before the COVID-19 pandemic snatched it away.

When the coronavirus forced schools to close in March 2020, the Pack Bots had just qualified for the National Vex Robotics competition in Ames, Iowa. But due to the school closures, the event was canceled.

“I was so frustrated and extremely disappointed,” Rubio said. “All the hard work we had put in was for nothing. We couldn't do anything.”

The quartet was sidelined for almost two years. Building, maneuvering, planning and recording the robot’s every move just didn’t translate via distance learning.

But 21 months shy of the pandemic’s anniversary, Rubio and his teammates, all sophomores, are picking up right where they left off. The Pack Bots are ranked second in Kern County and are undefeated in the Kern Robotics High School League.

“It feels great to be a part of this, and I am so proud of them,” McFarland teacher and Vex Robotics Coach David Cisneros said. “We work simultaneously with McFarland Junior High School to achieve the same goal and get students passionate about science, engineering and robotics.”

It has been a labor of love that has seen its limits through the pandemic. During the distance-learning phase, Rubio said he nearly lost his passion for robotics and building.

“I never really missed it until it was gone,” Rubio said. “I want to be an engineer ... in fact, I chose to be an engineer in the eighth grade. I need robotics to fuel the passion I have.

"Last year, my ninth-grade year, went by slowly and painfully. I hated that year. I could barely get through it.”

The team had to transition from middle school to high school — virtually. In addition, robotics moved from a class at McFarland Junior High School to an after-school activity at McFarland High School. There is an engineering class, but it was not the same for the team.

They have adjusted, coming in after school to work together and working individually at home on their robot. The quartet is also settling into their roles at the high school level.

Rubio is excited about new parts and building faster, more maneuverable robots.

Vejar has improved his technique and strategy. Ontiveros still notes how the robot moves, where the glitches are and what needs improvement. And Gonzalez puts it all together with the programming, taking Ontiveros’ notes and making sure Rubio’s build responds to Vejar’s commands.

“I love learning with the students,” Cisneros said. “This quartet is very tight. They have embraced their roles and have stuck to them. They are very coordinated.”

The teamwork is infectious. McFarland’s four other robotics teams made up of mainly juniors and seniors and under Cisneros’s guidance, have taken notice, seeking advice from the Pack Bots.

“It is nice to see most of the juniors and seniors who have been doing this since middle school and are asking for assistance,” Cisneros said. “It’s great for the kids to show vulnerability and admit they need help.”

The Pack Bots’ coaching aspect has helped them mature and get better. The Pack Bots’ goal is to return to nationals. To do that, they will have to do well at the state competition.

“I am excited about the future,” Rubio said. “I want to see what we can do on the grand stage.”