Robotics team stakes claim to Highland Mall storefront with big plans


In a dark corner of the nearly comatose Highland Mall, Austin students are refurbishing an old beauty school into a new robotics arena.

Called the ATX STEM Park, the 10,000-square-foot space isn’t quite the Cowboys stadium. Underneath the old mall lights, cream walls still have full-length mirrors attached and holes where shelves were screwed in. Over the next several days though, a carpeted arena will be installed on top of the wooden floors before whirring robots from all over Central Texas roll through.

“You get ideas off of other people and scrimmage against each other, so this should be really cool,” said David Worman, a Liberal Arts and Science Academy junior, about sharing the space.

Old robots built by LASA students occupy the storefront now, catching the attention of the mall walkers who are among the few passers-by. Austin Community College donated the space, which should be ready for practice by Feb. 1.

“This is a need in the community,” said Becky Carter, a LASA parent who helped secure the site.

Most of the students who will be using the arena are contestants in the FIRST Robotics Competition league. Each year, high school FIRST teams are assigned a challenge and are then judged at regional and ultimately, national competitions. About a dozen Central Texas high schools and groups participate in FIRST, arguably the largest competition in high school robotics.

In previous years, kids have been pushing together chairs and tables in their school cafeterias, gyms or work spaces to practice. “Janky” is the best word to describe their setup, students say.

The LASA team still laments not having a practice space last year. An air tank, which powered their robot, fell off during competition and the robot ran it over. The students laugh about it now, but said the hiccup could have been avoided had they test-drove their creation more.

Although more confident about their preparation, students say this year’s challenge isn’t as sexy — moving and stacking recycling bins. In previous years, robots were tasked with shooting flying discs and dunking balls.

“They are doing real-world kind of stuff,” said Jerry Moldenhauer, the teacher sponsor of the Eastside Memorial High School team.

Moldenhauer hopes that with a new arena, regional competitions would be held locally. Raising up to $12,000 from corporate donors and grants to travel and compete each year is a challenge for Eastside, he said.

ACC plans on renovating the rest of the mall for university purposes over the summer so the ATX STEM Park will likely have to relocate, Carter said. Carter hopes ACC will be able to find another spot for them by next school year.

Robotics is slated to become a University Interscholastic League academics competition in August, which would make an arena even more necessary, students say.

“More high schools might get more interested with it being a UIL activity, and they won’t have space to do so,” said Alice Sullivan, a LASA freshman. “Using a gym doesn’t work.”



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