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Team of teen scientists eye $8 million prize in top robotics competition

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    SAN JOSE, CA (KPIX) — Students at a school in San Jose make history again, as the youngest group to advance to the semifinals of a prestigious international robotics competition.

Despite pandemic school closures, they’ve managed to compete against adults twice their age from 16 countries to create avatar systems of the future.

Junior high and high school students at Valley Christian Schools built a robot from scratch. Out of 77 entries worldwide, it earned one of 38 coveted spots in the semifinals in the ANA Avatar XPRIZE Challenge.

Alex Lopes, a 12th grader, heads the student group called Team Avatar Quest.

“It’s really incredible. We’re honored to be part of such a prestigious competition,” Lopes told KPIX 5.

Danny Kim leads the school STEM Program.

“We’re the only high school, now the 2nd time, to even make it to the semi-final round in an XPRIZE competition,” Kim said.

The first time, Valley Christian’s Team Ocean Quest won an $800,000 XPRIZE bonus award in 2019 for devising a way to map the ocean floor.

That led to a flood of hundreds of applicants for the Avatar team.

“We were joking at one point that it’s easier to get into Harvard or Berkeley than to get into our XPRIZE team,” Kim chuckled.

A team of about two dozen students, chosen for their range of skills and variety of interests, developed a robot bartender that checks IDs, serves drinks, and accepts credit card payments.

The challenge is to create an avatar system to bring a human presence instantly to a remote location.

Future applications could include patient care, emergency relief, and repairs or rescues in remote or dangerous locations.

For the students of Team Avatar Quest, nothing came easy, especially in a pandemic.

“We were not able to set foot on campus,” Lopes said.

The students collaborated online for almost a year, then junior Sia Agarwal says they had to shift gears.

“Trying to coordinate all of that was nerve-wracking,” Agarwal said.

When they could return to campus, program mentor Nathaniel Grady said the team had only two weeks to produce the prototype for contest submission.

“It was tough because we were emotionally attached to the original design so we had to throw that all out the window, pivot, and say, ‘Okay, let’s build,’” Grady said.

The students are building a full-sized robot that judges will test in the semifinals this fall in Miami.

From there, up to 20 finalists will split $2 million, and vie for part of the $8 million grand prize.

Team Avatar Quest doesn’t mind being the underdog against researchers and corporations.

“It’s a moment I really want to treasure,” said Lopes.

“Science doesn’t exist in a bubble, but is also useful and inspiring to other people,” said Agarwal.

The students are enjoying the learning process, but the adults learn something important, too, about challenging today’s youth.

Kim explained, “If you give kids not just the right motivation but the infrastructure to excel, there’s really no bounds to where they can go.”

The students are drinking up the knowledge that anything is possible.

Another team from Valley Christian is entering a different XPRIZE Challenge to find a way to map the world’s rainforests.

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