Students fine tune robots, geared for competition


More than 300 students from 32 high schools throughout the state, including two teams from Toll Gate and Bishop Hendricken, as well as Cranston East, were in high gear Saturday morning for “Bowled Over,” the sixth annual For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, or the FIRST Tech Challenge.

The event, which took place from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the New England Institute of Technology (NEIT) at 101 Access Road in Warwick, is meant to inspire an appreciation of science and technology in students. While some say it’s just a hobby, others say it could lead to a career in the future.

In fact, Toll Gate made it to the final match and was one of the highest scoring teams of the day. They also were named a finalist for the Motivate Award, which recognizes team spirit shown though costumes and outfits.

Cranston East was a finalist for the Inspire Award, the highest honor, as the winner is automatically eligible for advancement to the next tournament level. While they didn’t win, sophomore Rachel Moore, 16, who was on an all-female team, “Girlz,” said the competition is a good way to lean more about the field.

“You get to use modern technology to create stuff and see how it works,” Moore said.

Her teammates, Angelina Marra, 16, also a sophomore, and freshman Stephanie Donnelly, 15, think the event was not only educational, but entertaining as well, since they were introduced to students from other schools.

Kyle Saran, 14, a Cranston East freshman on “East Robots 1,” said he looked forward to the competition.

“I’ve never been to one of these before,” he said. “I’ve always been interested in stuff like this. I’m calm during the competition but this whole thing is fueled by adrenaline. Everyone wants to win.”

Students from opposing schools agree.

“It’s very stressful but the stress is the fun part,” said Jamie Allstrom, 16, a Toll Gate sophomore. “Then, when it’s over, you know it was worth it. You have so little time to do so many tasks and so much stuff on the field that’s it’s hard to move.”

Michael Smith, 16, a junior, was on the “Techno Titans” with Allstrom and said he was pumped up by all the creativity in the room. For him, winning or losing was not the point.

“Whether you did well or not you just feel like celebrating,” Smith said.

Jeffrey Castellanos, 18, a senior who served as team captain, also enjoyed the competition.

“It opens up minds,” he said.

So did members of the “Hendricken Hawks.” Sophomore Jon Andrew, 15, thought it was interesting to see what the other teams made from the kits they were required to use. While the kits vary, most come with parts such as sheet metal posts, power cables, wheels, conveyor threads, axle spaces and more. They range in price from $450 to $650 and are funded through sponsors and students.

“So many different people can come up with so many different designs,” Andrew said. “Some teams [that] are setting the stakes really high have their robots grabbing the crates with a claw.”

His fellow Hawks, junior Nick Corey, 16, sophomore Max Rademacher, 15, and freshman Joe Turner, 14, said they enjoyed working as a team. They were all part of the Rhode Island Lego League Robotics programs when they were younger. The Lego competitions are similar in nature to the FIRST battles but are for grades four through eight.

“The idea is to pull the kids from the Lego Leagues into the high school programs,” said Erin Flynn, manager of Admissions Outreach and Events for NEIT, on Saturday. In addition to helping coordinate the event, she traveled to Washington, D.C. to hear President Obama’s State of the Union address on Jan. 24 as the guest of Congressman Jim Langevin.

The congressman said he chose her to accompany him because she is a leader in Rhode Island educational initiatives designed to help build a skilled workforce and provide students with science, technology, engineering and mathematical skills needed in the job market.

They’ve partnered to discuss and enhance the High School Cyber Foundations Competition, which the congressman brought to Rhode Island as a model for introducing youths to expanding industries like cyber security.

“We’re trying to teach them or expose them to a career maybe they haven’t thought about and we know that these high-paying careers are in demand,” said Flynn. “Sometimes kids in high school don’t join sports teams because they have different interests. This way, a kid can have that team experience and the sense of competition but it’s not on the baseball field or volleyball court. The mindset is that science and math should be as fun as sports.”

With one robot per 10 students to a team, they are presented with a challenge, which was revealed to them in September. This year’s theme, “Bowled Over,” asked them to transport racquetballs into baskets with one robot, as another robot is pushing a bowling ball up a hill. The objective is for one to finish before the other.

“Every movement they do gains points, so they don’t build a robot just to destroy it,” Flynn said.

Of course, the robots have to meet certain requirements. First, it needs to fit into an 18-inch-by-18-inch box, however, it can expand after it’s removed from the box. More than 70 volunteers and judges, who are Rhode Island engineers, were on hand to ensure the robots met the standards. Flynn said Tech Collective in Providence was very helpful in getting volunteers.

“The above and beyond commitment the teachers and volunteers make should be noted,” said Flynn. “They took time out of their Saturdays and they keep coming back year after year because they have a wonderful time. The industry people love connecting with the kids. They don’t get to do that every day.”

Al DiFazio, who lives in Johnston and teaches robotics at Davies Career-Tech High School in Lincoln, said he had a blast on Saturday.

“I enjoy seeing the team effort the students have to accomplish tasks and the way they interact with each other, even from other schools,” he said. “They are sharing ideas and trying to implement those ideas. A lot of them apply their ideas into a real life process.”

FIRST was founded in 1989 by inventor Dean Kamen. He also created the segway, the diabetic pump and built Langevin’s high-tech wheelchair. Langevin said he has greatly benefited from Kamen’s creativity and innovative thinking, as it allows him to be at eye-level with people when they are standing.

“His chair has enabled me to get around in ways I would not have thought possible just a few years ago,” said Langevin. “There are countless ways that people who pursue the science and technology fields change others’ lives for the better, whether it is discovering a new medicine or medical device, advancing our transportation and communication systems, or simply starting a business that provides services needed in their communities.”

From a broader view, he said the state, as well as the country as a whole, must excel in high-tech, high skill industries. This would help to support the economy.

“We should pursue any chance to attract talented youth to these career paths,” Langevin said. “Competitions like FIRST Robotics and the Cyber Challenge are perfect examples of fun ways to carry out this mission.”


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