Orchard Hills’ Robohawks emerge as global powerhouse in robotics competition

The Orchard Hill’s’ middle school robotics team won the VEX Robotics World Championship in Dallas in a tournament involving hundreds of teams from 36 countries.

Yunji Lee has many passions. She’s a studious eighth grader, talented violinist and part-time baker of muffins and macarons.

Most proudly, however, she’s a Robohawk.

Last May, Lee’s Orchard Hills middle school robotics team, the Robohawks, won the VEX Robotics World Championship in Dallas in a tournament involving hundreds of teams from 36 countries.

The triumph highlighted the success of Tustin Unified School District’s robotics program. In less than a decade, it has grown from a small program at Tustin Public Schools Foundation’s Summer Academy to a world-class endeavor, engaging 600 students a year in elective classes and after-school activities in all 65 schools.

“There’s nothing like our program as far as I’ve seen – at least not in California,” says Megan Lund, the teacher in charge.

‘Right place at the right time’

The program began in 2014 at the suggestion of a couple of district teachers. Robotics classes made sense for TUSD, according to Lund. The school district had already adopted project-based learning, and students were ready to test their skills in design, communication and collaboration.

For the first season, 12 middle school teams competed solely within the district. Later, elementary and high school students joined and began competing throughout the state.

“We just continued to grow and grow,” Lund says. “And in the past five years, robotics competition has exploded, so it turns out we were in the right place at the right time.”

Support from local businesses

Over the years, local businesses and community members have helped the foundation pay for materials and costs of competition. This month, as TUSD hosts its annual districtwide tournament, Irvine Company and the Donald Bren Foundation will donate $25,000, which the foundation says will be the program’s largest corporate contribution to date.

The six-member Robohawks team won the district’s first world honors with a challenge that required following a 47-page manual to build a controllable robot.

Preparing to compete takes a lot of time and effort. Lee typically spends three hours a day on robotics: one hour in her elective class and another two hours after school, five days a week. Often, she also meets with her teammates and coach on weekends. “I just feel really lucky to be in an environment where I can pursue my interests and meet so many people who are helping me learn,” she says.