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Meet Team Roaring Riptide: the high school robotics club making waves in STEM

Six members of Team Roaring Riptide pose with Coach Leigh Anne Brewster (middle). The team prides itself on its diversity, Brewster said. (Kylie Williams/WUFT News)

The team recently earned a NASA sponsorship for its work in assistive technology

In their identical bright red pants, visors and fanny packs, members of P.K. Yonge’s Team Roaring Riptide looks more like a group of lifeguards than a team of engineers. Although the team’s outfits are eye-catching, it’s the commitment to developing assistive technology that’s leading its members to success in the field of robotics.

Team Roaring Riptide earned the Engineering Inspiration Award, the second most prestigious award possible, at the FIRST Robotics Regional Competition in March in Tallahassee. The team also received a $6,000 sponsorship from NASA to attend the world championship competition, adding to its current roster of over 40 sponsors.

Winning the Engineering Inspiration Award was a team effort, Roaring Riptide member Brooklyn Prescott, 17, said. Part of the competition involved programming the team’s robot, “Ensem-Bill,” to battle other robots in a game. The team also had to give a presentation on its community outreach efforts to a panel of judges.

“Whenever we heard that we won the award, we were all kind of in shock,” Prescott said. “We all just started crying tears of excitement.”

What made the team stand out to the judges was its work in assistive technology, she said. Assistive technologies are devices that help disabled individuals in their daily lives. Through programming and engineering, Roaring Riptide creates toys and tools to increase accessibility for people in the Gainesville community.

"Ensem-Bill," is completely programmed and built by the members of Team Roaring Riptide. The robot is designed to shoot a ring at a target for the FIRST competition. (Kylie Williams/WUFT News)

The robotics program that contains Roaring Riptide was developed through P.K. Yonge’s engineering pathway, said the school’s director and superintendent, Brian Marchman. Through the program, P.K. Yonge hopes to motivate students to solve practical problems in the world through engineering, he said.

“The best thing that can happen for our students is that they learn how to apply robotics and engineering in real life situations,” Marchman said. “This will inspire their passions to pursue majors and careers.”

For Elinora Melgarejo, a 17-year-old senior on the team, Roaring Riptide helped spur her desire to pursue engineering after high school. Part of the team’s work involves making accessible toys for kids in UF Health Shands Hospital or elementary schools around Alachua County. Getting to see the reactions from the kids that Roaring Riptide works with has been Melgarejo’s favorite part of the program, she said.

Before joining the program, Melgarejo said her introverted nature made her nervous to become a part of the team. When she visited Roaring Riptide’s website, the female representation that Melgarejo saw on the team helped her feel less timid about getting involved.

“Once I joined, I really fell in love with the program,” she said. “It’s through all the years I’ve been here that I was really able to come out of my shell.”

Team Roaring Riptide has been working to pack 500-600 introductory boxes on assistive technology. The team doesn't patent any of its assistive technology designs so that they can be used by anyone, Brewster said. (Kylie Williams/WUFT News)

Six of Roaring Riptide’s 10 members are female, which is unusual for a field that’s stereotypically male dominated. When Leigh Anne Brewster became the team’s coach in 2017, increasing the female demographic of the team was one of her main priorities. The team is open to all high school students at P.K. Yonge with no try-out process in place, Brewster said. The goal is to keep robotics open to all, she said.

Roaring Riptide’s work with assistive technology is continuing to expand, Brewster added. During the team’s competition season, the members of Roaring Riptide put about 45 hours a week into robotics. Much of that time is spent creating assistive technology. In the last year, the team has tripled the amount of assistive technology it supplies to the Gainesville community.

Roaring Riptide takes an interdisciplinary approach to robotics and tries to make sure that no member gets too stuck in a specific role, Brewster said. Members of the team participate in all aspects of the club, including electrical engineering, coding, marketing and public speaking. The individuals of Roaring Riptide play to their strengths, but also try to support each other if someone is struggling, Brewster said. Over the past year, Brewster has watched the members of Roaring Riptide grow closer as a team and build on each other’s skills.

“They have really come together and become more of a family,” she said.

Team Roaring Riptide works through the organization Makers Making Change to distribute its assistive technology. Writing tools, puzzles and special keyboards are some of the products that the team has created. (Kylie Williams/WUFT News)

From Wednesday through Saturday, Team Roaring Riptide is attending the world championship competition in Houston, Texas. It’s the team’s first time getting to compete with a robot at the competition since 2015, Roaring Riptide team leader Joseph Santiago said. The team will compete against 500 to 600 other teams, many of them from other countries. In preparation, Roaring Riptide is packing hundreds of boxes that contain an introduction to assistive technology.

The team’s goal is to distribute a box to every team at the championship, creating a “tidal wave of assistive technology.” Roaring Riptide’s goal is for at least 10% of the teams at the world championship to become more involved in assistive technology.

Getting more people involved with assistive technology is more important to the team than winning, Santiago said. Roaring Riptide’s goal is to work in tandem with other international teams, rather than just competing against them. His team’s ability to impact the community through assistive technology has inspired Santiago to become an engineer after high school, he added.

“Yes, we build robots, but the robots are the ones that are building us into who we are.”

Kylie is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing