High School Robotics Team Clinches Third Place at World Championship

The 2023-24 Hephaestus Robotics Team and mentors pose for a photo at the MATE ROV Competition World Championship. From back row left: Barbara Meister, Tim Sylvester, Uriel Marinez-Uribe, Cole Williams, Amber Williams, Sophia Casaletto, Daniel Fernandez, Orlando Cazales Mendoza, Bennet Menzer, Tim Madsen. Front row, from left: J.D. Hillard, Matt Hofman, Nate Hofman, Blaise Benoit-Corey, Max Chen, Kai Herbst, Ben Hillard.

A robotics team of high school students from across Santa Cruz County found success on the global stage, clinching third place at the MATE ROV Competition World Championship held in Kingsport, Tennessee, from June 20-22.

Competing against 38 high schools from 11 countries in the Ranger Class, the Hephaestus Robotics Team received perfect scores on their engineering presentation and marketing poster and earned 285 out of 370 points for the demonstration of their two robotics devices: ROV (remotely operated vehicle) “Talos IV” and float “Vulcan III.”

“The team spent countless hours and late nights fixing the float and improving everything,” said Sophia Caselleto, Mission Scientist and junior at Pacific Collegiate School. “From late-night Zoom meetings to countless hours practicing in the pool, we took every opportunity to practice, and it paid off. We placed 3rd internationally and it is so gratifying!”

Uriel Marinez-Uribe, a rising senior at Watsonville High who led the float team, credited the team’s success to perseverance and teamwork after the device failed during an initial demonstration. 

Hephaestus Robotics Team members prepare to deploy their ROV. Daniel Fernandez holds the ROV whileCole Williams manages the tether and Sophia Casaletto and Max Chen set up the topside computer and joystick to pilot the ROV and graph data collected from the ROV, while Bennet Menzer, bottom, directs mission tasks and Ben Hillard, left, prepares the cable to be laid by the ROV to monitor ocean conditions.

“We never gave up,” Marinez-Uribe said. “We figured out the problem, fixed the code and the float worked perfectly on the second run! The collaboration and perseverance of everyone, even through the dreadful times of the float malfunctioning, is the cause of the success of our team and the Vulcan III.”

Consisting of 13 students from six Santa Cruz County high schools, the Hephaestus Robotics Team is part of the Santa Cruz COE X Academy Robotics Clubs. The program is a partnership between the Santa Cruz County Office of Education and the non-profit X Academy, launched at the start of the 2023-24 school year. It provides high school students from any school in the county the opportunity to learn to design and build an underwater robot, at no cost to participants.

MATE ROV competitions put these underwater robots to the test to complete real-world tasks, such as transplanting coral and creating 3D models of underwater objects. The Hephaestus Robotics Team qualified for the MATE ROV Competition World Championship after a standout performance at the regional MATE ROV Monterey Bay Regional Competition in May.

The members of the Hephaestus Robotics Team are:

  • Daniel Fernandez, Co-CEO, Santa Cruz High graduate, attending Cabrillo College this fall
  • Ben Hillard, Co-CEO, Santa Cruz High graduate, will be studying Physics at UCLA
  • Uriel Marinez-Uribe, VP of Float, senior at Watsonville High School
  • Bennet Menzer, VP of Engineering, senior at Santa Cruz High
  • Blaise Benoit-Corey, Mission Scientist, senior at Santa Cruz High
  • Sophia Caselleto, Mission Scientist, junior at Pacific Collegiate School
  • Max Chen, ROV Pilot, Kirby School graduate, will be studying Computer Science at UC Davis
  • Kai Herbst, ROV Software Engineer, Kirby School graduate
  • Matt Hofman, Float Commander, senior at Soquel High School
  • Nate Hofman, Float Commander, senior at Soquel High School
  • Amber Williams, Float Hardware, sophomore at Pacific Collegiate School
  • Cole Williams, Software Engineer, senior at Santa Cruz High
  • Orlando Cazales Mendoza, Float Design Engineer, sophomore at Diamond Tech School
The team assembles under a banner of flags for an official event photo. From left, Mentors Tim Sylvester and Tim Madsen, Hephaestus Team members Max Chen, Ben Hilard, Uriel Marinez-Uribe, Daniel Fernandez, Kai Herbst, Sophia Casaletto, Bennet Menzer, Amber Williams, Orlando Cazales Mendoza, Cole Williams, Nate Hofmann, Blaise Benoit-Corey, Matt Hofmann. (Photo Credit: X Academy)

In its 22nd year, the MATE ROV Competition World Championship convened 82 teams of qualifiers from 17 countries, including the USA, Canada, Scotland, Mexico, UAE, Italy, Poland, Germany, Turkey, Macau, Hong Kong, China, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, France, and Uganda. The competition is designed to push students to the forefront of underwater technology, featuring tasks such as deploying advanced ocean observing assets for data collection and installing state-of-the-art submarine telecommunications cables.

The non-profit X Academy was founded in 2014 by parent volunteers Tim Sylvester and Barbara Meister to provide STEM enrichment for middle and high school students in Santa Cruz County. X Academy and the Santa Cruz COE launched the countywide Robotics Clubs in 2023 to expand access to this level of enrichment to all interested high school students. 

“The process these students went through is very similar to a Silicon Valley startup company and they built an ROV that is similar in function and quality to  a commercial product. They are well on their way to becoming engineers,” said Sylvester. “Our partnership working with the COE has been inspiring and entrepreneurial. From our first meeting to the start of the program it took less than four months to create powerful learning experiences.”

After the float failed in the first trial, Nate Hofmann, left, and Orlando Cazales Mendoza returned to the hotel pool to re-write the code. The float worked flawlessly on the second try, yielding a perfect score.

Starting in October, 52 students from 17 local schools – including every comprehensive high school in Santa Cruz County – met weekly at Sequoia High School in Watsonville on Saturdays and on Sundays at the X Academy Makerspace in Santa Cruz. Fourteen volunteer mentors led students through a series of workshops teaching the fundamentals of software programming, electrical and mechanical engineering.

“The success of the Hephaestus Robotics Team is not only a testament to students’ technical skills, it is a demonstration of their ability to collaborate and think critically to solve complex, real-world problems,” said Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Faris Sabbah. “Congratulations to the team on this outstanding accomplishment, and thank you to the X Academy and the mentors who supported the team at every step!”

For more information about the Santa Cruz COE X Academy Robotics Clubs, visit cs.santacruzcoe.org/robotics.