Kodiak Robotics Members Enjoy the Journey as Much as the Competition

Tuesday, May 16, 2023
Phoenix College Kodiac Robotics team making last minute refinements on their robots for the VEX U competition
The Judge's Awards on display
Phoenix College's Kodiak Robotics team at the VEX U competition
The team driving the robots in the arena during the competition
The robots used in the robotics competition.
Lead mentor Joshua James with club president Maya Lee at Hermanas, a STEM outreach event

En Español. The Phoenix College (PC) Kodiak Robotics Team knows how to impress. A professional website: check. A polished twenty-page business proposal, complete. The Judge's award at the recent VEX U Robotic competition, Oh, yeah! 

The VEX competition was fierce, with PC’s team facing off against Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Arizona State University (ASU) Polytechnic, Grand Canyon University (GCU), and South Dakota School of Mines & Technology at the Southwest Regional Robotics Competition. Yet, PC's Kodiak team outscored all these teams on skills and averaged 60 points during each match to outscore GCU, ASU, and Embry-Riddle and beat universities worldwide to rank the 48th-best team. That's right, the world!

Robotics Club History

Kodiak Robotics, currently the only robotics club in the Maricopa County Community College District (MCCCD), began in 2013 with Joshua James, PC's biosciences lab supervisor, as the lead mentor. The club started competing in VEX competitions in 2016 when the team won a judge's award. Joshua's interest in robotics began with "Star Wars." Still, his Bachelor of Science in Physics prompted Seth Goodman, PC's grant writer, and Amanda Chapman, Biosciences faculty and S-STEM TRAIN Program Principal Investigator, to ask him to mentor the robotics club. "As long as students are interested, I'll continue to offer my guidance," Josh said. "The students run the club how they want to, and I'm there to say, Yes, we can legally do that, or No, we can't."

Club Leadership

Maya Lee, President of Kodiak Robotics, said Josh is integral to the team by advocating for funding. "Robotics is expensive, so he ensures we have all the necessary resources. If we lack funding, he helps us see a new perspective on how to get around those issues." Amy McPherson, Communications Department Chair, is another lead mentor for the Phoenix College Prep Academy (PCPA) robotics division and provides administrative and strategic oversight for the club. "PC's Kodiak Robotics Team is surely the little train that could," said Amy about the VEX competition. "This team deserves major kudos for a job well done!"

Kodiak Robotics Club Members 

Maya Lee, President

Mariana Fernandez, Vice President of Development

Charles Santay, Vice President of Public Affairs

Ro Loucks, Vice President of Operations

Angel Landeros, Lab Officer

Manny Zaragoza, Lead Programmer

Planning, Strategizing, Building, Coding, and More 

Maya's interest in robotics began in her first year of high school with several competitions, including FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) and Sea Perch, an underwater robotics competition. The VEX U competition this year was her first. Having revived Kodiak Robotics after COVID, Maya and the team have begun new traditions with two 12-hour days dedicated to planning, strategizing, and building the robots. "On strategy day, the team goes through the game manual and plans for the whole season," she said. "On build day, we build our robot prototypes, test them, and practice driving them."

A coding team also writes two versions of the code: active driving code, in which the driver uses a remote control to direct the robot's actions, and autonomous code, when the robot runs entirely on its own, which Maya admitted is the hardest. The team codes in JAVA and Python, two of the most popular languages in the industry. "Learning the engineering design method is vital to many of us who are STEM majors," Maya said. The bulk of building and programming happen on build day, but the team continues to build and code about two days a week or when their school schedules allow. 


This year's VEX U competition was a frisbee game, so the robot shot frisbees into a net, which is how the team earned points, and defended the area below the net. The team scored additional points if the robot turned the spin rollers on the side of the arena to the team's color. "The VEX competition allows the team to build real-world application robots," said mentor Joshua James. "The robots do run into each other during competition, which takes place in a 12 by 12-foot arena with four 18-inch robots in the arena, two per team, but the team competed better than they expected."

The club is already strategizing for next season's competitions, including a trip to California in September and the Southwest Regional Robotics competition in February 2024. "They're doing a lot of communication on Discord right now," Josh said. Discord is a voice, video, and text chat app to talk with communities and friends. "One of the challenges last year was not having a strong engineering notebook because we were so focused on building. Moving forward, we can focus on documenting the build stages, so when we arrive at the competition, we can show what we did and when we did it." Maya noted that successful world teams compete twice in an academic year, their first is a test run of their abilities, and the second is their placement for worlds, which is the international competition.

Benefits of Robotics 

The benefits of the robotics club are many, Maya explained. "It's a Work-Based Experience (WBE), but the club is also community-based. We build relationships with each other and also build relationships with the community." The club members are eager to be inclusive–in an industry that's historically been exclusive–and engage in school outreach, encouraging young women and a more diverse population to pursue STEM-related fields. Maya, a Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA) Program member, teamed up with Joshua James and Math faculty Patsy Herman to facilitate an engaging physics workshop using Hot Wheels at a recent Hermanas event, and the robotics team plans to continue their outreach to city youth this summer and next year. 

While the group is serious about STEM, they also value fun. The group approaches their work with a sense of humor and a spirit of adventure to enjoy the journey as much as the destination. PCPA or PC students passionate about learning are encouraged to join the team and expand their knowledge in coding and engineering, both electrical and mechanical. Donors are asked to consider supporting Kodiak Robotics with a company sponsorship or individual donation to help with competition expenses.