Muirlands-based robotics teams reflect on their years together as middle school winds down

It’s the last roundup for two La Jolla eighth-grade robotics teams that have students who have been together since elementary school and are trying to make the most of their last year before moving on to what in some cases will be different high schools.

The Muirlands Constructors and Team Architech, whose members are predominantly from Muirlands Middle School, are participating in the Southern California First Lego League robotics tournament, with the next round of competition April 10 and 17.

The online competition had its qualifying tournament the first two weekends in March. Teams design their own solutions to real-world engineering challenges while building autonomous Lego robots that perform a series of missions, according to FLL. This year, the teams also were tasked with finding a way to get the community active during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Muirlands Constructors

The five students on the Muirlands Constructors team — Jackson Brown, Jacob and Ben Khamishon, Isla Archbold and Jordan Hochberg — opted to build a Rally Ball table as their activity project. Jordan went to Muirlands for two of his three middle-school years and now goes to La Jolla Country Day School.

From left, Jackson Brown, Jacob and Ben Khamishon, Isla Archbold and Jordan Hochberg are the Muirlands Constructors.

From left, Jackson Brown, Jacob and Ben Khamishon, Isla Archbold and Jordan Hochberg are the Muirlands Constructors.


Jacob said the team members have known each other since second grade, and they started the team in third grade. “It’s cool to see how much we have grown in knowledge and how much we’ve accomplished over the years,” he said. “This year, we put everything we knew from previous years into the competition. We know how the judges would grade us based on previous experiences, so we built everything around that.”

Rally Ball, inspired by a game called TeqBall, involves volleying a soccer ball over a divider on an arched tabled using the player’s knees, feet, sides, head or hands. It is designed to be accessible to players of all ages and abilities.

The team built the table over a few weeks in Jackson’s garage and gave it a test run by moving it to the La Jolla Recreation Center grounds for people to use outdoors. The members made a video documenting the process, interviewing players and showing how it can be used.

The team cleared the qualifying round and now proceeds to the regional round.

A video produced by the Muirlands Constructors demonstrates how to use the Rally Ball table they built.

A video produced by the Muirlands Constructors demonstrates how to use the Rally Ball table they built.


Ben credited the team’s success to the members’ chemistry and ability to work together. “A big part of robotics is what is known as the ‘core values,’ which are innovation, discovery, impact, inclusion, teamwork and fun,” he said. “Our first year, we didn’t have the chemistry we needed. I think we got negative points once. But we learned to work together. Each of us has our own skills, and when we work together, we can accomplish something bigger.”

All the members said their interest in robotics started in elementary school and continued in middle school. They said they’d like to continue robotics in high school.

“Robotics was a big thing at our elementary school, so I wanted to try it,” Isla said. “It’s really sparked my interest and I plan on doing robotics in high school and I think it’s a really fun thing. But I wouldn’t have experienced if I hadn’t just tried it out.”

Jordan said he was in a “little club” in elementary school that met after school. Since then, “it’s been a great journey because I’ve learned so much about coding, building, problem solving, on and off the team. I believe I am going to continue to learn and grow, and the team has helped me with that.”

For Jackson, being on the team has expanded a preexisting interest in robotics. “I’ve always loved building things, since I was very little,” he said. “Since being on this team, I’ve had the opportunity to build robots but also learn programming. Before robotics, I hadn’t had any experience programming. This team has sparked my interest in coding.”

Learn more about the team by visiting

Team Architech

For most members of Team Architech, the FLL competition — which only goes through eighth grade — is the end of a four-year road they started as fifth-graders. But they’re leaving on a high note: Muirlands eighth-graders Elena Grilli, Mira and Sarah Lehman, Nathaniel Muus, Kyle Palmer, Leo Souza, Emma Weibel and Grant Williams, and fifth-grader Kevin Palmer, who attends Torrey Pines Elementary School and joined the team late last spring, won first place in robot performance in the qualifying round.

The team built its robot and programmed it to perform several actions based on FLL missions. “The question is, what didn’t the robot do?” Grant said.

Members of Team Architech, with coach Neal Palmer, took first place for robot performance in the FLL qualifying round.

Members of Team Architech, top row from left: Sarah and Mira Lehman, Elena Grilli, Kevin Palmer, coach Neal Palmer and Kyle Palmer. Middle row from left: Emma Weibel, Leo Souza and Grant Williams. Bottom row: Nathaniel Muus. Not pictured: coach Francesco Grilli.


Architech’s project to improve community activity was “a prototype for an app [in which] you can put in what type of skill you want to learn,” Emma said. “Then it gives you an exercise for it.”

“What we were centered around is motivation,” she said. “We found that … we all had a different motivation. Everybody’s different, but one thing that everybody does have in common is that they want to learn things to better themselves, like learning how to do a handstand. If people can learn through the app that we create, they’d be more motivated to try to exercise.”

Mira said: “The idea that we’re all really trying to solve for was utilitarianism. We wanted this app … to be able to benefit a large portion of the population.”

“When we look at pictures of us when we were all four years younger than we are now, it’s really interesting to see that we were all learning and all growing as people but at the same time you’re all still the same robotics team,” Elena said. “Wednesdays and Sundays every week we would all get together and build something great. It’s nice to have that constant over the years.”

“One of the biggest things that I will take away from robotics,” Emma said, “is the critical thinking skills that I learned throughout it. I’ve taken away so much knowledge around technology, which we are going to be seeing a lot more in the future.”

Grant said “all of us have taken away some very important skills,” such as “how to be working together better as a group, how to get better at an engineering mindset [and] coding. We learned to overcome our differences, because we’re all very different and we think differently.”

Also, Sarah said, “it’s just fun. Sometimes that element gets a little lost when you try to come up with all these answers, but it definitely was fun to build robots and to compete against other teams who also liked the same things you do.” ◆

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