Bots boost interest in engineering, technology studies

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Pilgrim student Connor Fontaine said being a member of one of the school’s two robotic teams has taught him how to be organized and team building skills.

Fontaine and his teammates competed in the 12th annual FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Tech Challenge hosted by the New England Institute of Technology at the Center for Automotive Technology in Warwick.

The event introduced another first, which was announced in opening ceremonies. Students from the top three winning teams – Burrillville High School, The Prout School and The Fellowship from Scituate year – are entitled to annual renewable scholarships up to $10,000 at NEIT. And that’s not limited to Rhode Island winners. Lynn Fawthrop, vice president of Enrollment Management and Marketing, said the scholarships are also being made available to members of the top three state winning teams across the country.

“This is a generation of students in technology competitions that are our future innovators and entrepreneurs,” she said.

Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian, who was in attendance for opening ceremonies, was impressed.

“It just goes to show the commitment to students,” he said.

For Fontaine, the competition and not the potential of scholarships was on his mind. He and fellow team member Benjamin Smith were making adjustments to their robot after finishing “somewhere in the middle of the pack” in the first round.

Teams build and program their robots to enter a ring where they must perform multiple tasks, from stacking blocks to returning to their platforms, within a designated time. To the beat of music and in front of bleachers filled with spectators and competitors, team members watched over and directed their robots as referees kept close watch and judges kept score.

For Fontaine, the challenge was melding two competitive teams – the Vets High School team that became part of Pilgrim with secondary school consolidation – into a single unit. As for organization, he said the difficult thing is keeping track of the hundreds if not thousands of pieces that go into building a robot.

For Hendricken High School science teacher Jeremy Graney, who was there to support the school’s team, the reward of the competition is involving students in a hobby that is not part of the curriculum and in sharing their love for engineering and electronics.

Erin Flynn, NEIT Director of Enrollment Management Outreach who has been running the event all these years, said the competition illustrates that “kids are problem solvers and they can roll up their sleeves and do it.”

She has seen the competition grow, although with 32 teams (some schools have multiple teams) she said there’s room for many more. Robotics, she said, is a means of schools offering students greater opportunities in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). Flynn said she’s been trying to recruit teams from Toll Gate, both Cranston high schools and Johnston High School.

Fielding a team takes not only commitment on the part of students, but also coaches and financial resources. There’s a $275 entry fee and then acquisition of a kit that can run $800 to $1,200 depending on parts available from the year’s prior robot.

The top three teams are now eligible to compete in the regional competition in Scranton, Pa. Winners of the regional will compete in the nationals, to be held in St. Louis.

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