Robotics experience encourages career in engineering


Maya Ziv had no clue just how much she would learn to love robotics when she joined Canyon Crest Academy’s team as a sophomore.

Now a soon-to-be graduating senior, the 17-year-old plans to study engineering in college.

“I never would have gone into engineering without this team,” Maya said. “It’s been a huge part of my life and it’s changed me a lot as a person. I really like it.”

Although Maya enjoyed math, she wasn’t particularly passionate about science and hadn’t considered engineering until her friends encouraged her to join the team.

Founded in 2009, Aluminum Narwhals, team 3128, participates in a nonprofit program known as FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) in the high school divisions FRC (FIRST Robotics Competition) and FTC (First Tech Challenge). Through this program, every year the team competes head-to-head on a special playing field with robots the students have designed, built and programmed.

“I love the idea that, with the opportunities this program provides, you can just make anything,” said Maya, who lives in both Encinitas and Solana Beach.

With a lot of hard work, the Carmel Valley school’s robotics team has enjoyed much success, especially over the past few years.

At the San Diego Regional Competition in 2014, when Maya was a sophomore, the team won a creativity award for innovative design. Aluminum Narwhals was the only team that designed a circular robot.

“It was super hard to program and hard to build, so we won an award for that,” Maya recalled.

In 2015, Aluminum Narwhals won the Entrepreneurship Award at regionals for the Robotics Summer Camps it hosts on campus every year.

“That was really awesome,” she remembered.

This year, with Maya as team president, Aluminum Narwhals constructed a robot for FIRST Stronghold, a challenge that involved overcoming obstacles and scoring dodgeballs into goals. After more than 3,000 hours of effort, the team won the Engineering Inspiration Award at the Las Vegas Regional Competition and a $5,000 sponsorship from NASA to attend the the FIRST World Championship in April 27-30 in St. Louis.

“It’s fantastic because it feels like the culmination of three years of work for me,” Maya said just days prior to the competition. “I’ve put a lot of time into this team. Winning this award was sort of like a validation of all of this work that I’ve put in. The team deserves it so much. They all work so hard.”

The Aluminum Narwhals placed 39th in their division for their robot, which Maya described as a “six-wheeled tank.”

“It wasn’t the success we hoped for, but it was an awesome experience for our team,” she said. “It definitely sparked the fire of determination for future success.”

Although the growing list of awards and challenging competitions have been some of the team’s biggest accomplishments, Maya is also proud of the summer camp Aluminum Narwhals developed for elementary and middle school students.

The camp idea came about after robotics team members and their mentor discovered just how pricey similar options are for local students. So they decided to offer an affordable alternative.

“Kids should have access to this stuff,” Maya said. “We really want kids to be able to get into engineering because it’s not nearly as hard as everyone thinks it is.”

In its first year, the camp raised about $15,000 for the robotics program. The camp brought in $48,000 the following year.

“It’s allowed us to expand our robotics program a lot,” said Maya, noting that the robotics team is able to compete through donations, fundraisers and sponsorships. “It’s opened up a ton of opportunities for us.”

Canyon Crest Academy’s third annual Robotics Summer Camps are set to return July 5-Aug. 5. During the five weekly sessions, first- through eighth-grade students will build and program robots, and at the end of each week, participate in a mini competition where they form alliances and test their contraptions. In the process, campers learn the basic principles of engineering, design and programming with the help and instruction of high school counselors from various robotics teams.

“If I had this camp in middle school, I would have built these robots and competed in competitions and thought this was super cool,” Maya said. “It would have been another two or three years of experience I could have had.”

Although much of her time has been devoted to the Aluminum Narwhals, Maya also serves as president of the school’s Gender Sexuality Association. Additionally, she has helped organize the school’s TEDxYouth events. TEDx is a program of local, self-organized events devoted to ideas worth sharing.

Maya has also been a dancer for 14 years. She dances with North County Dance Arts, mostly ballet and jazz, but plans to learn ballroom, contemporary and swing dancing.

With a goal to be an engineer, in the fall, she will start at Stanford University.

“I’m trying to go to college to get the skills that I need to improve the world — to change something about the world and make sure we can be doing it the best we can,” said Maya, who encouraged young students to consider engineering and discover their passion.

“Do stuff that you are interested in,” she said. “I took classes that I was interested in. I wasn’t worried about inflating my GPA and I wasn’t worried about taking classes that would look best to colleges. I took stuff that I thought would be super cool and I would learn a lot.”

For more about Aluminum Narwhals and the summer camp program, visit