Like many great Silicon Valley origin stories, Peninsula Robotics' starts in a garage.
Four years ago, Spencer Morgenfeld was a junior at Palo Alto High School, where he had been part of the school's popular, competitive robotics team since his freshman year. In 2015, with overwhelming demand from students who wanted to be part of the team but without the resources to meet it, the school cut more than 40 students from the program.
"He just felt like everybody who wants to do this should get to do it," his mother, Pam Morgenfeld, said in an interview. "We emptied our garage and welcomed the kids here."
So began Peninsula Robotics, a scrappy, student-run robotics group that has grown from about 10 high schoolers that first year to more than 25 students from Paly, Gunn High School and other local public and private high schools, some from as far as away as San Jose.
There is another community-based team in Palo Alto called Garage Robotics, started by a group of about 10 Paly students also working out of a team member's garage. This year was Garage Robotics' first competing in For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) Robotics competitions, according to team captain Quintin Dwight.
Despite the space and funding limitations Peninsula Robotics faces — its main workspace is still a team member's garage and driveway — the team won a wild-card spot at the FIRST Robotics World Championships in Houston, Texas next week. They'll be competing with their robot, dubbed Baby Dino, against tens of thousands of students from K-12 robotics programs from around the world.
Paly's and Gunn's well-established robotics programs are supported by parent boosters and the schools' administrations. Creating an independent group has been both gratifying and challenging for the students involved.
After Kate Lee was cut from Paly's robotics team her freshman year, she joined Peninsula Robotics. Now a senior, she said the "vibe was completely different." The smaller, more intimate group of students included kids of different ages and skill levels, but all had a deep passion for robotics.
They quickly realized they would be doing much more than building a robot. They had to manage their finances, find corporate sponsors and learn how to work together as a team. They went to local recycling plants to rummage for scrap metal and other materials. Their busiest period, build season, coincides with the winter months, so they use a tent to cover the driveway when it rains, set up heat lamps and race against waning daylight in the evenings. They have to wait for clear weather to test the robot in the driveway — or at a nearby school if they need more space.
Parents with programming or engineering experience lend a hand if needed, but the students primarily lead the work.
"When your resources are limited, you need to be creative to be successful and competitive," Morgenfeld said.
That first year, they built a robot for less than $1,000, Lee said, but were still able to reach the top 10 against 50 teams in a local competition. Other teams' robots can cost up to $5,000, she said.
This year, the team has been working mostly out of Lee's family's south Palo Alto garage but is also machining parts in Paly junior Ethan Chun's garage nearby. He's sourced a collection of vintage tools from Craigslist, including a lathe machine from 1944 and a vertical milling machine from the 1960s.
Chun joined Peninsula Robotics as a freshman because he wanted to be on a smaller team with more flexibility. His love for building things — Legos and sand structures at the beach when he was younger — drew him to robotics, but he said he was surprised by how much the team has taught him about working with others.
"I thought robotics would be about building things and just building things. But it's actually turned out to be a whole lot more. Teamwork skills ... that's been one of the most valuable things I've learned," he said.
Because the students come from different schools, they have more diverse experiences and skills. Chun learned about computer-aided drafting (CAD) from a Gunn student who had been exposed to the software in an engineering course.
"By virtue of being a community team, it means that students don't feel that they have to choose between a school sports team or arts program and are able to do multiple things," added junior Vyomika Gupta, who joined Peninsula Robotics after two years on Paly's team. "This means that the team has a wonderful set of collective interests and skills and means you can always learn something new."
The experience of Peninsula Robotics has been influential for Lee, who is now the team captain. She won a FIRST scholarship to study engineering at her dream school, Boston University.
"Robotics has taught me discipline, responsibility, passion, etc. But the most important lesson that I have learned is that no matter what obstacles you face, you can always overcome them as long as you are driven," she said. "With like-minded people, a 'sketch bot' can easily become the same value as an $5,000 robot."
The students are gearing up to travel to Texas next week, their first non-local competition, where their robot will face an obstacle course of sorts, depositing "cargo" and climbing tiered platforms with efficiency and precision.
The team borrowed a shipping crate from Woodside High School's robotics team to ship Baby Dino in and launched a $1,500, then increased to $3,500, GoFundMe campaign to pay for other expenses.
Looming on the horizon is the question of where the team will operate next year. After Lee graduates, her family's garage will no longer be available, and they'll have to find a new space.