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Inspiration helps engineer success for robotics team

By Seth Gonzales
The Texas Catholic

IRVING — Competition is nothing new for students at Cistercian Preparatory School, but for the 17 members of the school’s first robotics club, their first robotics competition was uncharted territory.

“I remember being kind of overwhelmed because there was a 126-page guidebook just for that single game,” said junior Matthew Dorn, who credits his father, a forensic civil engineer, with fostering his love of science and technology. “This competition is really as in-depth and requires as much commitment as a sport like soccer or basketball.”

Since 2000, Cistercian’s robotics elective has been taught by Father Mark Ripperger, a veteran of the U.S. Navy and former nuclear power plant supervisor. But this year marked the first time the school had mobilized a team for competition. The driver behind the idea was junior Charlie Lipscomb, who said he was inspired by a college-level summer robotics class he had taken.

“When I came back, I decided that Cistercian really needs this sort of activity,” Lipscomb said. “So many people here love STEM, robotics and building, so it only makes sense for us to have a robotics team so that people can explore that aspect further.”

Five months after submitting his proposal to the school’s administration, Lipscomb was given the green light to begin forming the team and preparing it for the FIRST Robotics Competition, a worldwide competition intended to inspire young people to consider careers in the fields of science and technology.

They had to work quickly, given the timeframe. The competition committee allowed teams only six weeks to create a robot that could climb a rope and deliver gears.

“At times, it looked like we might not make it because we were starting out very slow and trying to figure out what direction we could go with this because we had never tried something this big,” Father Ripperger said.

Students watch as their robot climbs a rope during a robotics class April 20 at Cistercian Preparatory School in Irving. Visit TexasCatholicYouth.com for video coverage of Cistercian’s robotics team. (JENNA TETER/The Texas Catholic)

But with the guidance of Father Ripperger and two mentors, the team managed to pull together a robot in time for the competition, held March 8-11 at the Irving Convention Center. More than 50 teams from across Texas assembled to compete. Among their competitors were students from Jesuit College Preparatory School and a team sponsored by NASA.

Father Ripperger said he and his students were pleasantly surprised to find an atmosphere of collegiality among all the teams.

“Unlike other competitions you might go to, it’s not me-first,” Father Ripperger said. “The idea is to help each other out. Our students realized that yes, it’s important to worry about our own robot but also to help other people around them. One of the main things that FIRST Robotics is trying to reinforce is that we work with other people and try to take what we learn and pass it on to others.”

Despite their rookie status, Cistercian’s “Fusion Corps” team went undefeated through the competition’s qualifying rounds and earned the No. 1 seed going into the elimination round before falling short in the semi-finals. Father Ripperger said the team’s performance did wonders for the confidence of his students.

“They had no idea that they could exceed everybody else’s expectations in such a great manner,” Father Ripperger said. “What was nice to see is that so many of the guys did not give up. They were not put back by the fact that at times we tried something and it failed. Instead, they stepped back, re-analyzed the problem and came up with a new solution to see if it would work.”