JOHNSON SPACE CENTER — Katie Brief has been taking toys apart to see how they work since she was a little girl. And she’s not the only one at Clear Springs High School with a inquisitive mind.

Brief’s fascination with how things work paid off when she and 60 other like-minded members of Clear Creek ISD’s Robonauts were awarded the coveted title of world champions last week.

The district’s team consists of high school students from across Clear Creek ISD, she said, all of whom played an instrumental part in the Robonauts’ success in the competition.

“Everyone had a role in the competition,” the high school senior said.

Whether that role was in designing, programming or strategizing, each of the 60 students contributed to the team’s success, she said.

The Robonauts competed last week against more than 18,000 students from around the globe in St. Louis, Mo., with their robot Empire, along with their alliance partners from Davis, Clovis and Palmdale, Calif., to win the FIRST Robotics Competition and were crowned Alliance World Champions.

“There were teams from Canada, Australia and all across the U.S.,” said Jessa Westheimer, a sophomore at Clear Brook High School.

This year’s challenge, called Recycle Rush, was to build a robot that could stack boxes and top them with a recycling bin. All this had to be done while other students had their robots throw swimming pool noodles as a means of sabotage. 

Past challenges have required robots to do tasks such as playing tic-tac-toe with large inner tubes, throwing flying discs and playing basketball, students said.

Competing alliances scored points by stacking totes on scoring platforms, capping those stacks with recycling containers and properly disposing of pool noodles that represented litter.

The four-day event came down to the wire with what Robonaut team members described as a “heart-pounding” conclusion in front of a crowed estimated by students to exceed 40,000 people.

Students relived the excitement of their victory while watching a video of the event on a cellphone belonging to Clear Lake High School sophomore Devin Powell.

“You wouldn’t believe the excitement,” Powell said as she smiled while rewatching the video.

Mentor Mason Markee, a Clear Creek High School graduate who now works as a robotics engineer with NASA and having once been on the district’s robotics team, the chance to relive the excitement with the students was incredible, he said.

“I’m unbelievably excited for them,” Markee said. “I know exactly what they’ve been through and all of the hard work that goes into this. It’s such a huge accomplishment.”

Other Robonauts said hearing their name announced was surreal and one team member even cried in excitement.

Students and staff, along with NASA-Johnson Space Center mentors, worked late nights perfecting their winning strategy.

Much of that strategic planning took place at the beginning of the year when the students themselves acted as robots inside NASA’s Space Vehicle Mock-Up Facility. This helped students brainstorm about possible outcomes that could happen during the competition.

“From there we would come back and work on the strategy,” Brief said.

That would require looking back at all of the competition’s requirements and restraints, she said, as well as identifying a task for their robot complete.

For the Robonauts, their goal was to create stacks of six boxes and place a recycling bin on top as fast as possible.

The robot had to have multiple capabilities, which included executing a task without a driver and also being able to be driven by students.

“It was a lot of trial and error,” Brief said.

A lot of the knowledge the students put toward their robot included things they learned in school, such as vectoring, which is something Danielle Pettinger, a junior at Clear Brook High School, said she learned in her physics class.

“I was able to take what I learned and applied it here,” Pettinger said.

That vectoring lesson was applied toward the tires used on the robot, she said.

On the flip side, James Trapp, a junior at Clear Springs High School, said things students learn through Robonauts could also be applied in the classroom.

Members of the Robonauts hope their victory will help get other students excited about robotics and other science, technology, engineering and mathematics-related programs and courses.

“This is something anyone can do if they set their mind to it,” Jessa Westheimer said.

Now, the Robonauts are already planning to repeat their victory next year.

“We want to win the championship two years in a row,” James said. “That would be awesome!”

Contact reporter Shannon Daughtry at 409-683-5337 or


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