ST . GEORGE — The PrestidigiTaters have competed and won again and now head to the First Super-Regional Championship in Tacoma, Washington, where they’ll challenge 72 teams of seventh-12th-grade students from 13 Western states with their own robot named “Spudnik.” They are asking the community’s help to get there.
The team is aiming to raise $8,000 for travel expenses. Those interested in donating can do so through their GoFundMe account linked here.
At the Utah State First Tech Challenge Championship this month, the robotic team won the robot category and placed second for the Inspire Award allowing them to advance to the Super-Regional in Tacoma.
The First organization, an acronym for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,” hosts the competitions to increase students’ knowledge in and passion for science, technology, engineering and math fields.
The PrestidigiTaters, sponsored by the Washington County 4-H club, is led by captain Madi Allen, a senior at Dixie State University’s Success Academy and each member plays a distinct role. Bailee Allen, a junior, serves as the marketing specialist and secretary; McCade Larsen, a junior at Dixie High School, focuses on programming; Kason Peacock, a junior at Desert Hills High School, contributes to engineering and robot design; Dallin Bundy, a ninth-grader at Dixie Middle School, oversees fundraising and outreach; and Derek Sneddon, sophomore at Desert Hills, focuses on computer-aided design and inter-team relations.
Their unique identiry comes from prestidigitation, or hand magic, which they perform while building and driving their robot. The word is combined with tater as a nod to the City of St. George’s namesake, George A. Smith, who was known as the Potato Saint after planting the crop to provide food for others.
Really, the team says, the name is an excuse to eat potatoes at every team meeting and wear magician costumes and perform tricks at competitions.
To prepare for these competitions, the PrestidigiTaters work all year to build and program the best-performing robot possible.
“When you start your season off, you’re given this blue bucket of standard tetrix pieces,” Peacock said, referring to a popular robotics kit. “The first thing we did was drill holes in all of those because we did not like them very much.”
After the initial robot is built, teams work all season to make improvements on it, learning from what went well and what didn’t at past competitions as well as identifying approaches that worked for other teams.
“What is really cool about the First Tech Challenge,” Larsen said, “is even though everyone has the exact same mission and can use all the same tools and same parts, you end up with hundreds of different robots that are each individually different and each take different approaches to these missions.”
The PrestidigiTaters’ robot, aptly named “Spudnik,” operates in both autonomous and remote-controlled modes using professional-grade software.
At competitions, each team is assigned another team with whom they align for each round. Together, they take on two other teams and work to most frequently complete tasks such as placing whiffle balls and large exercise balls into hoops called vortices and pushing a button to change the color of a beacon.
Outside of competition, the team is committed to community outreach and works to bring Utah’s 56 robotic teams together. The PrestidigiTaters have served 400 outreach hours and host scrimmages to prepare less experienced teams for competitions and share some of the tips and tricks of the trade with them.
“We really make it a priority of our team to give back to the community that has given us so many opportunities because Dixie State, 4-H and other tech industries in Southern Utah have launched our interest and passion in technology,” Bailee Allen said.
Additionally, team members teach at summer tech camps, including Dixie State University’s computer camps, to inspire younger students and encourage them to be fearless in pursuing their passion for technology.
“It is really fun working with the kids,” Sneddon said. “They just get that look in their eye, that’s like ‘this is what I want to do!’ I know that sounds cliché, but seriously, it’s there and they really feel it and they know robotics is what they want to do.”
The PrestidigiTaters’ involvement at Dixie State University is part of the Department of Computer and Information Technology’s initiative to build a technology talent pipeline that prepares students to meet the significant demand for quality programmers, designers and developers in the technology marketplace.
As they head to the Super-Regional Championships, the PrestidigiTaters have their eyes set on an even larger goal. They hope to finish in the top 25 and move onto the Houston World Championship, a feat they were just one round away from accomplishing last year as a first-year team. Now, with more experience under their belts, the team is excited to see what happens at Super-Regionals.
“We are very, very thankful for the tech community of Southern Utah and we’re hoping we can represent them well at Super-Regionals,” Bailee Allen said. “We really want to show what the tech community of southern Utah has to offer.”
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