Colonie High student Dhimitri Kulira works on his team’s robot at the FIRST Robotics Competition on Friday, March 9 at RPI. Jim Franco / Spotlight News
TROY —Shaker and Bethlehem, the latter in its rookie season, were regional winners at the New York Tech Valley FIRST Robotics Regional Competition held at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute on March 6 through March 9, and have earned the right to compete in Detroit, Michigan, next month.
Shenendehowa was the third regional winner while teams from Stuyvesant, Albany and Lake Placid were regional finalists. Bethlehem also took home the “Highest Rookie Seed” award and Shaker took home the “Excellence in Engineering Award” sponsored by Delphi.
The three-day competition, one day to prepare and practice and two days of competing, was one of 174 happening all over the world, from Rochester to Istanbul, over seven weeks. There were 36 teams at RPI, with hundreds of high schoolers from the northeast and as far away as Brazil and Canada. Other local teams competing included those from Voorheesville, Colonie High, Troy, Ballston Spa and Greenwich.
In all, more than $80 million in scholarship funding is available as teams work their way through the different levels of play towards two championship sites, Detroit and Houston Texas.
“Rensselaer values STEM education and inspiration in STEM. That is what we’re celebrating with this competition,” said Paul Schoch, director of Rensselaer’s Center for Initiatives in Pre-College Education, and a member of the New York Tech Valley FIRST planning committee.
FIRST was founded by inventor Dean Kamen and incorporated in 1989 as an effort to get more teens interested in science, technology and engineering. Three years later, 28 teams met in a New Hampshire high school gym for the inaugural competition and championship. In 2018, 3,647 teams with more than 91,000 students and 25,000 mentors from 27 countries built robots to answer a specific set of challenges.
This year the objective, known as Destination Deep Space, was to place hatch covers on rockets and other ships and then load them up with cargo, or rubber balls, before climbing up a series of escalating platforms. There are “sandstorms,” or curtains dropped over the window behind which the team is remotely operating the robot just to complicate things even more. The climbing obstacle is more difficult than last year, too, because unlike last year there is not a bar for the robot to grab on to and pull itself it. This year, it has to push itself off the ground.
The teams had six weeks to study the problem(s), design a prototype and then build a remote controlled robot to accomplish the task.
“I think we have worked a total of more than 3,000 hours and that’s with a couple of snow days,” said Colonie High senior John Burkhard, who is headed to Hudson Valley Community College next year with sights set on studying mechanical engineering at Clarkson University after that. “I came in and I could use a screw driver … maybe. And this year we are mass producing parts. We were given a sheet of paper and we were told to make it. And we made it. You don’t have to be mechanically inclined, or have a single care about robotics, to be in robotics. There are so many different opportunities and places for anyone.”
The reasons students get involved in robotics are varied. Be it for something to do or because their friends are involved or, as the program is designed, because they are exploring career paths related to engineering.
“One of the most important things I have taken away from robotics is that it verified the things I am looking at for higher education are and the things I want to pursue,” said Shaker High senior and four-year robotics vet Noah Page shortly after fixing an electrical short on the team’s robot during Friday’s practice rounds. “When I get to practice these skills, it is something I’m passionate about and it’s validation that I am not picking a career based on a paycheck or picking something that a few years down the road I will end up hating.”
Page has not yet decided on a college but is eyeballing Northeastern or Rochester Institute of Technology.
The Shaker team has some 100 members who participate to one degree or another. And, it is not just for guys.
“They would break a lot more things if we weren’t here,” said Reagan Lafnitzegger, a Shaker senior headed to Fairfield University in Connecticut to study mechanical engineering. “Being on the robotics team is one the reason why I want to go into mechanical engineering. There are a lot of things I would not have learned if I hadn’t have done this.”
Shaker has had a robotics team for years and has more than 100 participants to one degree or another. This is Bethlehem’s first year in the big leagues after starting a smaller program last year that built smaller robots.
While competition is fierce, in that everyone wants to win, there is also a sense of camaraderie. That is exemplified by an occasional announcement over the public address system of one team or another looking for some obscure part or another. If a team can spare one, they readily give it up to help their fellow builders.
“From day one, the first day we signed up, we got immediate help from the teams in Ballston Spa and Albany,” said Nick Watson, who started the team this year with his co-captains Ben Eisenbraun and Ben Goldberg. “As a first year, it is hard to round up enough people willing to put in the kind of time you need after school and on weekends so in the offseason the challenge is to recruit people for next year.”
The initial investment is steep. Just to enter a robot costs $6,000, which Bethlehem secured through a grant from NASA, and then another $2,000, conservatively, on parts and materials. Plus, Watson said, Bethlehem didn’t have a tech-room to build the robot so they used the one in Ballston Spa.
“When someone needs help, everyone is willing to drop what they are doing and help out. It’s really an amazing atmosphere. We had help, and we built a robot. To put something up, and bring it to the competition is just amazing.”
Voorheesville started their team just four years ago, said senior Camille McDonnell, the team’s captain, adding they worked nearly 13 hours on the last day alone on robot “Maximus.” But, despite having issues with the prototype, and a pneumatic issue with the arm intakes the balls and installs the panels, Maximus was on the floor Friday and ready to compete.
While the hands on skills certainly are advantageous, McDonnell, who is headed to Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts to study chemistry, the ancillary skills are what she took away from four years on the robotics team.
“You learn to work with other people, and to come up with new and innovative solutions to problems,” she said. “This year it seems a bit harder because there is a lot going on at the same time so it’s hard to coordinate it all but we are trying. They come up with something unique every year and that makes it fun.”