Liberty robotics team relishes hands-on work and inclusivity

There’s room for everyone at the Iron Patriots 4131 team at Liberty High School.

If you navigate through Liberty High School and you maneuver your way through what some students consider the art wing after school hours, you will likely find students scattered through various classrooms.

They won’t have their noses buried in books. Instead, you’ll see few using CAD at the computer room and others wielding large machines at the metal shop.

Meet the Liberty High School robotics team the Iron Patriots, team 4131. It’s a dedicated group of about 40 students who have garnered a reputation of working hard and playing hard.

The captain that’s steering the team this year is Drew Hardcastle, an outgoing and vivacious senior who’s determined to run a tight ship.

Students run to her every few minutes, asking questions and seeking direction. If you didn’t know any better, you might assume Hardcastle was faculty.

Perhaps it is Hardcastle’s strong willed, go-getter nature that got her elected as president, even though this is her second year on the team.

The team has been instrumental in her own journey as a teenager who is still finding herself.

“(Last year) I came to the first meeting and I really liked what I saw,” she said. “It was a place where everyone accepted you no matter what. The popular people were here, the jocks, nerds, outcasts were in here. They were all here and they were productive. That’s what I really enjoyed about robotics.”

When elected president, Hardcastle said she wanted to continue that culture of inclusivity, to make sure everyone had a place at the table.

Hardcastle is one of the many Iron Patriots who have been deeply impacted by the team and what it offers.

The team doesn’t boast of its victories. Rather they take pride in how they handle losses.

“One of the best things I’ve learned is how to take defeat,” Hardcastle said. “Last year, we got last place in the first competition. People didn’t handle it as a defeat. It was more a learning experience where we stripped down the entire robot and asked, ‘What works and what doesn’t work?’ and we rebuilt it.”

The team won the next competition and aptly named the robot Phoenix.

Phoenix sits in the hallway, a reminder for the students that their story can only get better from here.

The team is largely student-run, but is supported by Tod Oney, the staff advisor who’s seen standing silently in the background, ready to step in when necessary.

While he allows students to problem solve on their own, he focuses largely on teaching them soft skills.

“What we hear from the industry is that they’re looking for people to come into the workforce that show up on time and have the soft skills. One of the things with meetings is that we expect people to be on time,” he said.

He sits with students like Hardcastle to sharpen their own leadership skills so they’re able to grow as able professionals.

He sees the 4131 team not as a club, but as a small business. The club, which raises most of its money on its own, requires students to talk to businesses — a tough feat if you’re a shy introvert.

“Part of the class is that you have to physically go and talk to (businesses),” Oney said. “They don’t have to bring money in, but it is (about) working the soft skills.”

Students are coached on how to conduct interviews and leave a positive impact on those they meet as well. Oney is insistent they learn how to properly shake a hand and maintain eye contact during interviews.

Apart from building robots and entering competitions, the team also embeds themselves into the community, to raise awareness and give back. Students participate in the summer lunch programs to expose younger students to robotics.

“(It’s important) to show these kids, especially disadvantaged kids at the summer lunch program who might not have this program at their school… that just because it’s not there doesn’t mean you can’t do it,” said Hardcastle.

Her favorite part of doing these events is hearing kids tell her that they have decided to do robotics or pursue engineering as a result of their interaction.

The group also makes their rounds at Renton River Days, Salmon Days and Newcastle Days.

Community service is part of the mantra of FIRST, the robotics competition the Iron Patriots are part of, according to Oney.

“We compete but we’re also gracious professionals and (asking the question) how are we developing others,” he said.

The group had its kickoff Jan. 6. The event marked the beginning of their season, a time for members to gather together and start strategizing about their new robot and the upcoming competitions.

Much like the Phoenix that sits in the hallway, the students are preparing for a season where they will likely win some and lose some. At the end of the day, it’s about the rising that matters.

“There’s no failing and saying, ‘I can’t do anything now. I’m going to leave it,’” said Hardcastle. “No, you have to keep going because there’s no stopping in robotics. This is all year long… it’s only keep going and do better the next year. This is a driving force in robotics.”

Joe Bergin, right, shows Sam Bhatt, right, how to run a mill during one of their after-school sessions. (Leah Abraham | Renton Reporter)

Joe Bergin, right, shows Sam Bhatt, right, how to run a mill during one of their after-school sessions. (Leah Abraham | Renton Reporter)