At an upcoming robotics competition, teams will use robots they have built to play a game called "Turning Point." It's a complex game, with flags, caps, balls and platforms, but if just understanding it seems complicated, imagine the work and knowledge it takes to build the machine that can do all those things.

The Streets of Bakersfield Robotics Extravaganza, a regional VEX Robotics competition, will return to the Kern County Fairgrounds on Saturday. There, 32 high school teams and eight middle school teams from Bakersfield and beyond will come to compete for four spots in the state championship. 

"It's a chance for these kids to show off their academic side and science backgrounds," said event organizer Tom Henderson. "A lot of (spectators) are totally amazed that kids are doing that, that they're at this level of sophistication."

At the world championships each year, VEX Robotics announces the following year's game for which all competing teams build robots to perform certain tasks. "Turning Point" was announced last April, and while some teams might have waited until the school year to start working, teams at Highland High School were eager to get to work right away.

"Our season started the second the game was released," said Robert Maldonado, a senior who serves as president of the school's robotics club. "We spend all summer working on a robot that sucks and then two weeks working on one that's really good."

For the competition, two teams are randomly paired together to work against another set of paired teams, or alliance, each team using its own robot. For part of the game, the robot completes tasks autonomously; for the remainder, the team's driver controls the robot, with input from his or her teammates.

In "Turning Point," alliances are given a color (red or blue) and score points by having their robots toggle flags, flip caps or set them on top of a higher pole, with their color showing at the end of the match. Lower flags are toggled by the robot itself, while the higher flags must be switched by having the robot throw a ball at it.

"My first reaction was (to) how many different things" this year's game entailed, said senior Bernard Guinto. "Usually it's focused on one thing. My first year it was just getting balls into a net ... Now here, so much stuff is happening, with flags and caps. You have to make a robot that's very flexible."

There are also three platforms, on which the robots can sit at the end of the match to earn points. Each team has their own dedicated platform but in between those is one either team can take. At that point, all the normal robotics competition rules fade away in favor of general mayhem, the students said.

With 40 people in the club, Highland has nine teams, mostly categorized by grade. Maldonado and Guinto are two of five members on their team, joined by fellow seniors Anthony Protho, Alexander Meyer and Nicholas Pressley. 

The robot they currently have and will use at the competition is the result of months of work, building and rebuilding until the robot meets their vision.

"I like the process a lot," Meyer said. "In the beginning, you start with a whole lot of different designs and see what works the most, then everyone gravitates to one design."

But the robot isn't the only key to being successful in a competition.

"It's strategy, driver skill and the robot," Pressley said. "If you have a good strategy and driver, you can beat someone who has a better robot. If you have all three, it's really hard to get beat."

The team, and many others who will compete on Saturday, have put in hours of work on its build. The Highland club meets on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to noon, requiring not just a dedication to the work but also a willingness to give up precious free time.

"It's been a lot of work and they've learned a lot," said Aaron Whitfield, Highland's robotics coach and engineering teacher. "Their designs have changed and evolved, as they've seen what things don't work and have had to come up with creative solutions. It's been rewarding when all their hard work pays off and when the kids have a good time."

The students on the Highland team encouraged anyone who is interested in robotics to come out to the competition this weekend.

"If you take a moment to see how the robots move, you realize how much time is spent on it and how creative some people are," Protho said. "Coming to see the new engineers of the future would be pretty cool. It can be pretty entertaining because sometimes the robots do clash."

With out-of-town teams coming for another chance at the state championship, the Streets of Bakersfield competition is sure to be exciting. Some of the teams have already won a spot at state and are using the local competition as a last chance to put their robot to the test before then. 

"There will be a lot of close matches, especially at this competition," Maldonado said. "There will be a lot of really good teams. Streets of Bakersfield is and has been the biggest and most challenging we've ever competed in over the four years."

Kelly Ardis can be reached at 661-395-7660. Follow her on Twitter at @TBCKellyArdis.

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