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Home > About Us > Hands on, minds on, hearts on: Paying it forward

Hands on, minds on, hearts on: Paying it forward

Whitney High School Robotics students experience and share the gift of hands-on learning

Published June 13, 2022

Additional Can’t Hold Down Hands-On Learning articles:

Sometimes, we talk about education in a way that assumes teachers need to create a love of learning in students. But there is another school of thought that says a love of learning is already intrinsic to most of us. Maybe sometimes being a good educator is really about providing the proper tools and a little bit of guidance – and then just getting out of the way. Often, the greatest learning experiences are driven by learners themselves!

Here, we bring you the story of the Whitney High School Robotics Club.

Gretchen Whitney High School in Cerritos, California, is a magnet school that is currently ranked as the Number 1 high school in California. So, of course, a desire for academic excellence and professional success is a powerful drive for the students of WHS Robotics. Indeed, current team members are well-versed in the lore of previous team members who have gone on to prestigious schools and prominent careers in technology and engineering.

But the words of the students give the unmistakable impression that the club is also a labor of love. We think you’ll be inspired not only by the love of learning the WHS Robotics members display, but also their love of sharing learning, especially the hands-on kind.


The robotics program at Whitney is multifaceted, but the first thing to say about it is that it is extremely student driven. In the words of teacher and club advisor, Matt Johnson, “I do have certain responsibilities, but the students are not following my lead. And when it comes to designing robots, they know more than I do.”

And that is the last time we will quote Mr. Johnson or any school faculty here. The students are going to take the lead here too.

The next thing to know about WHS Robotics is that the team has been remarkably successful. Since 2007, Whitney’s FIRST® Tech Challenge team has always advanced past qualifiers and has made it to the FIRST World Championships several times. “Out of the 15 regional level competitions we have attended, we have won awards in 13. During this season’s qualifiers, we won the Think, Inspire, and Design awards,” explained Christine Liu, WHS Robotics’ secretary and publicity head.

The program has a strong reputation for excellence, and this is backed by an equally strong dedication among team members: Generally, the team meets three to four times each week, with meetings typically lasting two to four hours.

The 15-member FIRST Tech Challenge team is split into three sections: Building, Programming, and Publicity, each section having its own internal structure. “Our team is very learning based,” said team captain Darian Victoria. “We pick up a lot of skills from using power tools to design. Our programmers definitely do a deep dive into Java and autonomous programs. And our publicity members learn a lot of marketing skills and event planning.”

Usually, one competition robot is built each competition season, after an extensive R&D and prototyping process, in which concepts are tested using TETRIX® robot pieces, off-the-shelf items, and 3-D-printed pieces. (For more about this, see “Building on the past” below.) In addition, Whitney Robotics also consists of a second robotics team that is not competition focused and a FIRST LEGO® League team at the younger level, for which older team members provide mentorship.


But that barely scratches the surface of what makes WHS Robotics so compelling. The team has an extensive outreach mission that makes a big impact in the Cerritos community and generates an outsized interest in STEM and robotics among the public school district’s younger students.

The group regularly hosts open lessons for students at the high school. Topics run the gamut: everything from computer vision and machine learning to CAD and marketing psychology. During building workshops with attendees, the group often uses TETRIX robotics components from Pitsco such as gears, motor hubs, and C channels.

Whitney Robotics also pioneered RoboCamp, an annual summer program for elementary and middle school students. The camp focuses on robot design and programming, as well as teamwork and leadership skills. “What [students] are getting from this week-long camp is an experience of putting robots together, literally creating things from scratch,” said Club President Eileen Chang. During the pandemic, the camp was transitioned into a virtual camp. The fees were also waived because, Eileen said, “we wanted to make it a more accessible event for people.”

Science in a Box is yet another innovative program created by the club. “We distribute free STEM project kits to disadvantaged and underrepresented children in our community and host accompanying lessons to teach about related STEM topics,” said Liu. “For example, the children learn about sound waves when making string telephones and learn about circuits when making brushbots.”

Programs like these help young students find their way to an interest in STEM and robotics. In this remarkably student-driven team, the students have taken up the task of preparing the next generation as well. And, for many on the team, this mission is personal – they owe their own interest in robotics to similar outreach they experienced as younger students.


Whitney Robotics team member and FIRST LEGO League mentor Eileen Lee explains that when she was in second grade, her brother attended a robotics camp. Ultimately, that exposure led to her own robotics pursuits. “I’ve been doing this since seventh grade – so, six years now. Camp gives you a gateway into the world of engineering. We didn’t know about that before in my family.”

Club Treasurer Perry Han also remembers the moment that he found his enthusiasm for robotics, and it was thanks to an outreach effort aimed at sparking robotics interest. “Back when I was in elementary school, we used to have science nights. The Whitney High School Robotics Team brought their competition-level robots. They set up a demo and a field. . . . As an elementary kid, I just thought, wow, that is so cool. And that has been one of my driving motivations for coming to Whitney and joining the robotics team to build and code my own robot.”

This initial flush of interest is a start, but it is the continual rewards of hands-on robotics education and team membership that keep their enthusiasm high. “I’ve put a lot of hours and a lot of commitment into this club,” said Victoria. “The learning experiences that it has given to me really drive me forward and keep pushing me to do things on the team.”

WHS Robotics is not just a top-tier competitive robotics group; for the students on the team, it is also a place to explore, to imagine, to create, and to share.


“We believe that learning hands on is one of the most effective and interesting ways to learn about engineering and STEM,” said Christine Liu, Whitney High School Robotics secretary and publicity head. Liu explained that the normal classroom environment privileges theoretical examples. However, hands-on robotics puts the theoretical to the test in a functional build, and the result is greater comprehension.

“This is especially evident in concepts such as gear ratios. While a typical class would gloss over it, we can create working projects with TETRIX gears to see how speed and torque change with gearing and incorporate this mechanical advantage into designs for FIRST Tech Challenge. . . . Pitsco products have given us the ability to understand how we can shape the world around us through learning interactively.”


For the Whitney High School Robotics FIRST Tech Challenge team, each year’s competition robot is born out a conversation between what has worked in the past and innovative new ideas to meet that year’s competition challenge.

Team member and FIRST LEGO League mentor Kirsten Yen shares details: “We have had a pretty consistent drive train for about three years now. That has been through iterations. We kind of know what to do and what not to do on that. . . . For other things, it’s constantly changing every year based on the game.”

The team uses Pitsco TETRIX pieces heavily during the prototyping phases because the interchangeability of the pieces and convenient fastener hole patterns make it easier to work through new ideas. After ideas have been fleshed out, the team branches out into more custom-designed 3-D printed and CNC pieces, as well as other off-the-shelf pieces used in creative ways. (TETRIX pieces are also often used in the final robot for stability and motion transfer.)

For example, last year, the team created a ring-shooter. First, it was prototyped using wood and TETRIX C channels. In the final version, it was created with 3-D-printed pieces that were made to snap together. This methodical approach paid off: the ring-shooter performed well and they hit all their targets.

“The best part is they’re getting the hands-on, practical experience of doing the activity and working through all the logistics and the questions of how it would work. It’s not just a bunch of theory and ideas. They’re actually doing the activity, which is going to be valuable for them to take into the classroom because they will know what to expect.”

– Joseph Santos, principal, Vista View Middle School, Fountain Valley, California

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