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DARC SIDE Robotics Team Returns from Hiatus with an Eye on a National Championship Berth
Story by Kathy McPherson

When Durham Academy’s robotics team, DARC SIDE, headed to Asheville in March for a district meet, it was the first time in more than two years that the team had competed. The restrictions of the pandemic canceled robotics meets in March 2020, and only a few of DARC SIDE’s 24 team members had ever experienced competition.

But DARC SIDE — which stands for Durham Academy Robotics Club: Students in Design and Engineering — took second place in Asheville and claimed second place at the Guilford district meet the following weekend. The team now ranks seventh among North Carolina's 66 teams, is among 32 teams competing this weekend for the state championship at Campbell University and hopes to be among the approximately 800 teams at the April 20–23 world championship in Houston, Texas.  

“Depending on how well we do at states, we will go to worlds in Houston,” said Forrest Beck, who coaches DARC SIDE with Leyf Starling and Dave Chandler. In addition to their coaching duties, Starling teaches robotics and physics at the Upper School; Beck teaches robotics and serves as the network manager with the school’s Office of Information Technology (OIT); and Chandler works with the Upper School’s invention studio and the OIT team.

Ten North Carolina teams will qualify to compete at the world championship. “We've done it twice,” Beck said. “And we did really well in our second year [at worlds], so fingers crossed we get to go to worlds this year.” 

DARC SIDE has been in existence since the 2016–2017 school year. The team competes through an organization called FIRST (For Inspiring and Recognizing Science and Technology) in the FRC (FIRST Robotics Competition) division. 

Beck thinks robotics is popular with students “because it lets us do many different facets of engineering. We have electrical engineering and mechanical engineering, computer science or computer engineering. We can tap into all these different engineering fields and have students explore all these different engineering fields through robotics.”

Charith Fernando ’23, one of DARC SIDE’s four co-captains, wants to pursue engineering and said “DARC SIDE provides the perfect introduction to the engineering industry. Robotics is not only about building the robot, but it's also about getting acquainted with working as a team in the engineering field. I was really drawn to not only learning more about how to become a better engineer and build better robots, but I was also interested in how I could become a better leader and a better person through working in a team.” 

He joined DARC SIDE two years ago as a ninth-grader and said the robotics club made good use of time when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down competition. The club was away from the robotics lab completely when school abruptly went fully online in March 2020, but DARC SIDE returned to the lab when in-person instruction resumed during the 2020–2021 school year. 

“We got back and we did an intrasquad competition where we split the team up into four small teams and built four small robots that compete so that the underclassmen could learn skills from the upperclassmen about how to build a robot,” Fernando said. “I think that was integral to our success this year because we had some of the basic skills.”



Ella Simmons ’23 is another DARC SIDE co-captain who joined the team as a ninth-grader. Looking back at 2019–2020, she said “that was a COVID year. We didn't know it yet, though, so we built a full robot and we took it to competition. That was the last competition that I'd gone to until two weeks ago, so a very long hiatus.”

As a ninth-grader, Simmons said she helped with tasks like cutting but was not part of the design process for the robot. 

“I think this year we've had a really wonderful experience building a robot from start to finish, especially because I hadn't built a robot before and no one else on the team had really built a robot before,” she said. “So this was a new year for everyone.”

Building a full robot is a process that usually begins each January. This year’s DARC SIDE team and coaches gathered in DA’s Kenan Auditorium on Jan. 4 to watch the kickoff from FIRST, announcing the game for the 2022 competition. The game has a different theme each year — Disney and steampunk are among the previous themes — and all the details are spelled out in a 400-page manual that teams must follow closely. 

Aerospace company Boeing partnered with FIRST on this year’s game, which has a transportation theme, and DARC SIDE began work immediately after kickoff.

“The kickoff is all about strategy and brainstorming and prototyping and building,” Starling said. 

The team designs and builds a robot that will skillfully accomplish the tasks of the game while not exceeding a perimeter of 120 inches, a height of 42 inches and a weight of 120 pounds. And building the robot is an ongoing process.

“We'll go to a competition and we'll learn something,” Beck explained. “That thing that we built broke easily. We'll see something another team is doing and we'll adapt it into our robot. You're always making it better. It's never perfect.”

Ninth-grader Emily Simmons, the daughter of two engineers and sister of DARC SIDE co-captain Ella Simmons, said there was no question that she would join the team when she got to the Upper School.

“The team has really helped with my teamwork skills and communication, but also there are so many knowledgeable people that you just learn from them,” she said. “One of our programmers, Everett [Wilber ’24], has taught me a lot more about software and stuff that I wouldn't have known before, how to use certain apps. Even on the mechanical side, which is more what I'm familiar with, I've learned so much because there's so much knowledge on the team.”

When it comes to competition, the ninth-grader said “it’s a mix of a lot of fun and a little nerves.”

Bobby Rossilli ’25, in his second year with DARC SIDE, said he was initially drawn to robotics because his sister [Emma Rossilli ’21] was on the team. “I had gone to a few of her competitions and I got to see what was happening. I didn't actually know how the robots worked or how much time was put into it, but I got to see how the competitions were and how fun they can be.”

Rossilli said it was rough with the team not going to competitions last year, but he has appreciated participating in this year’s robotics competitions, which have an environment that’s much like that of a sports game. The stands are filled with cheering spectators — teams not currently competing, as well as parents and friends. 

Because DARC SIDE’s logo is the moon (i.e. the dark side of the moon), Rossilli and his teammates created a moon mascot costume and he wore the mascot costume at DARC SIDE’s most recent competition. 

“The amount of cheering I did in the last competition, I lost my voice because I was yelling so loud but we did get the Spirit Award,” Rossilli said. “Our team, we're so close knit that it's just like a bunch of friends hanging out. And then we get to do something and we have a goal as friends and so it's really fun.” 

2021–2022 DARC SIDE Team Members

  • Ryan Bauroth ’25

  • Owen Burson ’25

  • Bryan Cornejo ’23

  • Charith Fernando ’23

  • Brandon Fox ’24

  • Anand Jayashankar ’24

  • Mirella Kades ’22

  • Danielle Li ’25

  • Pratham Madaram ’24

  • Gil Mebane ’24

  • Chris Morris ’23

  • CJ Nwafor ’23

  • Kanishk Pandey ’25

  • Shreya Rao ’25

  • Sarah Ridley ’22

  • Bobby Rossilli ’24

  • Isabella Scurria ’24

  • Ella Simmons ’23

  • Emily Simmons ’25

  • Jason Sorin ’24

  • Tate Staples ’22

  • Lukas Stone ’23

  • Everett Wilber ’24

  • Imhotep Truitt ’23