Tustin Unified’s Orchard Hills School students Tara Hamadani, Sushmita Palle, Olivia Ramirez and Michelle Wang hold the Design Award their team won at the 2019 VEX Robotics World Championship.

Irvine girls design world-champion robot

by LORI BASHEDA

A squad of Orchard Hills School seventh- and eighth-grade girls in the Tustin Unified School District returned to Irvine with the prestigious Design Award from the 2019 VEX Robotics World Championship in Louisville, Kentucky.

The six students beat out 200 other middle school teams from every state and 40 countries, including China, so it was a huge victory.

“We were already amazed that we made it to the World Championship, so to win was just crazy,” eighth grader Olivia Ramirez says.

The team was judged on its robot design, its engineering notebook (documentation of the design process) and interviews.

Orchard Hills engineering teacher Megan Lund coaches the team, as well as four other teams. Three of her teams made it to the 2019 Worlds.

“She’s the best mentor I could have ever asked for,” says Ramirez, 13. “She is so encouraging and super kind.”

The team of two eighth graders and four seventh graders worked on the robot nearly every day after school from August 2018 to April 2019, usually while blasting the Backstreet Boys on their phones and singing along.

When Lund started teaching at Orchard Hills five years ago, there were only two girls in the robotics program. Now girls make up half of the program.

“So that is something that has been awesome,” Lund says. “I think it helps with me being a woman.”

Lund, 27, says she didn’t have the same STEM opportunities when she was in middle school, adding, “This has become a huge part of my life now.” She says that before the all-girl team started winning competitions (including Excellence at State Championships), some of the boys didn’t take the team seriously.

“But they kept coming out on top,” she says. “It was really neat.”

Orchard Hills also fields an elementary school student team that competes at the VEX Robotics World Championship. In 2017, they took home the coveted Creates Award.

“Starting students early is so important in providing a solid foundation upon which to build,” says Nancy Chung, fifth grade teacher and robotics coach. “Our Irvine students are competing on a global scale.”