Paloma Valley's robotics Team Axolotl wins national title (2024)

Team members Arturo Romero, Christian Quigley and Alessandra Pimentel celebrate a national championship.

By Sydney Woodley, Correspondent

High school student Arturo Romero glared at his 10-page history paper, feeling both admirable and frustrated in his efforts on that day at Paloma Valley High School last school year. His friend, Christian Quigley, had achieved a higher grade on his six-page paper. Romero had always possessed a competitive spirit, but he was impressed with Quigley’s immaculate writing abilities.

Romero approached Quigley with the idea of establishing a robotics team, Team Axolotl, a decision that would impact both of their lives.

Romero had moved from Mexico to Menifee in his junior year, to pursue a school with more opportunities to explore his passion and interests. Understanding a new language and culture was challenging, but his enthusiasm for engineering provided a place of comfort. At Paloma Valley High School, Romero focused his engineering interest on forming a robotics team.

“When I arrived to America, I had a culture shock because there were a lot of opportunities for everything and I saw people on their phones doing nothing,” Romero said. “Being in a room with all of the machinery made me want to learn and compete.”

Despite Quigley’s academic success, he had never possessed enthusiasm for engineering or school. He lacked the direction for his future and had planned to take basic routes to get through his schooling. Nevertheless, when Romero approached Quigley about joining the robotics team, he did not hesitate to join his friend.

The junior duo worked tirelessly on building a submarine that would win them Sea Perch competitions at the regional level in Riverside in 2023.

When you secure a first-place position at the regional level, a team is secured to compete at the international level in Washington D.C. to go against 200 teams across the world.

Team Axolotl took third place on the podium in 2023 -- a spot that would not normally take them to the international level. However, wild cards are issued to three out of 200 teams. Team Axolotl was one of those three.

The duo used the international competition as another opportunity to earn a first-place trophy. Despite being undersized compared to other teams, many of which had up to eight members, Team Axolotl placed sixth at the international competition in Washington D.C. It was an impressive accomplishment for a first-year team with only two members, and it fueled their determination to aim even higher.

However, the team knew they needed more to climb to the top for this season. This year Alessandra Pimentel, a junior heavily interested in aerospace engineering joined the team. Romero and Pimentel had shared a couple of classes and would see each other in clubs. Upon meeting each other they realized they shared the same interests, including engineering.

“At first it was nervewracking joining the team because I did not realize how serious it was,” Pimentel said. “I then began sacrificing my club hours to dedicate to engineering.”

With the experience of their first season under their belts and a new addition to the team, Team Axolotl’s dynamic shifted into high gear this year. They would spend countless hours in the engineering classroom throughout the school day and at Romero's uncle’s pool after school.

The pool was a perfect setting for testing their submarine, which is crucial for preparing for the SeaPerch competitions that are held in a large swimming pool. Neighbors would host barbeques while observing the team’s practices, offering encouragement and occasionally assisting financially to purchase resources.

Balancing their devotion to the robotics team with other life obligations was no easy take. Romero was enrolled in AP classes. Pimentel was involved in a variety of clubs on campus such as the Polynesian Dancers, Journalism and her crocheting club. Additionally, Pimentel volunteers for the city and for the March Field Air Museum. Quigley was also taking AP classes, working two jobs, maintaining a relationship with his girlfriend and prioritizing going to the gym every day. However, each of them shared a similar method of managing their time -- prioritization.

“I always had a dedicated time slot for engineering,” Pimentel said. “When I was at school I spent half the day in the engineering classroom and when I got home, I dedicated my time to homework and a portion to engineering as well.”

Sandra Arguello, Paloma Valley High School’s engineering teacher and coach, provided resources and encouragement for the team. Arguello mentioned the team wanted to participate in more competitions.

UCR Mesa hosted a regional competition where teams can compete to secure a spot in Washington DC. Each team competes in an obstacle course, a race that involves maneuvering through rings and presenting a written report.

“It’s a smaller group of people who go up to Riverside, so it is not as intimidating but they got the hunger to try more competitions,” Arguello said.

Team Axolotl swept first place in all areas in the Riverside match. The team also traveled to compete in San Diego’s regional event, where they also swept.

The preparation for San Diego did not come easy. Water had entered into the team’s submarine’s motor, causing it to stop working. With the competition hours ahead, Romero worked hard all night to repair the motor, allowing the team to earn a victory.

The team attempted to compete in Arizona, but the state strongly discouraged them from competing to allow other teams the chance to earn a spot in the international competition. But with first-place wins in all categories at San Diego and Riverside, their victories were setting the stage for their return to Washington D.C.

When the trio alongside their engineering coach, Arguello, and mentoring coach, Matt Dale, landed in Washington DC, they spent the day seeing the city before the competition. Visiting historic sites like the Lincoln Memorial, the Smithsonian Museums and the Washington Monument provided a nice break from their pre-competition anxieties and allowed them to bond.

The atmosphere of the 2024 International SeaPerch Challenge was electric, with teams from across four continents showcasing their creations and competing in an Olympic-sized pool. Dale provided advice to shift the team’s perspective on the competition.

“There were a lot of competitors, but we don’t see them as opponents. We had the attitude that they were our friends and we wanted to meet them,” Romero said. “That psychology made us compete against ourselves.”With Team Axolotl up first on the obstacle course, Quigley’s first round did not go as planned. His time of 1:12 was far too slow to be competitive. While Romero was completing his attempt, Quigley observed the course and calculated the adjustments he could make.

Team Axolotl is distinguished from other teams not solely from its small-sized group, but the design of the remotely operated vehicle, or ROV. The team had modified and built the ROV from scratch, creating a much faster submarine, which meant they had to learn to control its speed.

“I was trying to get my headspace to zone everyone out and go into each hoop one at a time,” Quigley said. “If I had to take half a second to stop the ROV, then I would.”

Quigley’s mental and technical adjustments paid off and he reduced his time to 35 seconds. Now the team had to wait for other teams to finish their attempts and written report presentations.

Later in the day on June 1, the final results were announced and the small but powerful squad from Menifee took first place, a massive improvement from their sixth-place performance the previous year. The team completed the obstacle course in the fastest time and received a high mark on the written report.

“It’s important to not be discouraged by losses,” Quigley said. “When we did not win last year, we found a way to come back.”

The triumph demonstrated not only their technical ability but also their friendship and determination. But the team's victory was laced with bittersweet emotions as Romero and Quigley graduated this year.

Quigley, now passionate about engineering and with a clear vision for his future, plans to pursue a career in computer science software engineering.

“Though the trophies add to one’s ego, the most rewarding part has been the interest and ambition I have gained to learn more about the engineering field,” Quigley said.

Romero will attend the University of Virginia on a full-ride scholarship. He was also selected for the Anson L. Clark Scholar Program, a highly competitive and prestigious scholarship program. Within the program, he will receive $20,000 for his research and be able to study abroad. Additionally, because of his leadership position on Team Axolotl, Romero will be placed in leadership positions at the engineering and business level.

“I’m really proud of putting Paloma and Menifee on the map since we never competed at the international level in the engineering field,” Romero said. “I’m happy that with the experience; the class will get more support.”

Pimentel will take the reins as team captain next year and expressed her excitement for the future. She is aware of the challenges that lie ahead. Recruiting new members will be tough due to eligibility standards and finding students who are interested in competition and engineering. But the past two years have set a high standard that Pimentel is optimistic and poised to maintain.

“I noticed how strict our team captain was and demanding us to be together at practice at all times,” Pimentel said. “He really made it important to be there, even if it’s just there for 20 minutes. Being there as a team is important.”

As Pimentel prepares to build a team for the upcoming season, she will be guided by her team’s legacy.

“There’s so much to reflect upon, however, this team has changed my high school experience for the better,” Pimentel said. “I learned a lot about leadership, friendship and professional relationships. I couldn’t have asked for a better team.”

Paloma Valley's robotics Team Axolotl wins national title (2024)

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