Middle Country robotics teams to compete in prestigious world competition

Middle Country robotics teams to compete in prestigious world competition

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Members of the Centereach Cougears Victoria Heffern, Aidan Donnelly and Kumpu work on their robot. Photo by David Luces

For the members of the Centereach and Newfield high school robotics teams, they have spent months and countless hours building and perfecting their robots in hopes of getting to their ultimate goal they set out at the start of the season. After both teams performed well at Southern New York State VEX Championships earlier this month, the duo has earned a spot in the VEX World Championships taking place April 24-27 in Louisville, Kentucky.

Jackson Mazer and Kevin Swayze test out the Newfield Roverines’ robot. Photo by David Luces

Nicholas Parrinello, Centereach Cougears Robotics adviser and technology teacher, said it all comes down to the student involvement.

“It is not a mentor- or teacher-built robot — it’s all them,” he said. “They come up with the design, test them and make sure it performs well.”

The second iteration of the CHS robotics club/team has been around for the past three years, and Parrinello said this has been the team’s best year culminating in the team being a semi-finalist at the state championship in March.

“To see your name on the screen in second place is a big deal,” he said. “It makes the time you put in worth it — it’s fulfilling.”

Cory Fitzgerald, Newfield Roverines Robotics adviser and technology teacher, said for his students it’s more than a club to them, it’s a culture that they get into and something they want to get better at.

“We had a very young team this year,” the NHS robotics adviser said. “We thought this would be a rebuilding year but we came in and did really well.”

The Roverines won the state championship in 2017 and 2018, and this is the third time the team will go to the world championship. Returning and new team members had some big shoes to fill after a majority of the team left for graduation.

Fitzgerald said initially in the beginning of the season the team didn’t fare too well in its first competition, getting eliminated in the semi-final. For some members of the team this was the first taste of defeat as up until that point they had never lost a competition, and they had made it to the finals of every competition they had been to in the past four years.

“It was a wake-up call for some of these students,” he said. “They came back to this room and disassembled the robots right down to the base and built another one from scratch.”

Members of the Centereach Cougears. Photo by David Luces

To the team’s credit, they bounced back winning, its next two regional competitions.

“The students have really progressed this year,” he said. 

Team members of both teams reflected on their accomplishment and journey to get to Worlds.

“It’s exciting. It’s only our third year and its rewarding [to get to Worlds] after going through so much,” Victoria Heffern, president of the Centereach robotics team, said.

The CHS senior said when they first formed the team everything was new to them, and they were testing the waters and gaining experience. The team got better in their second year and they built on that coming into this season.

“It’s amazing how far we’ve come,” 11th-grader team member Kumpu Ide said.

Team member Erik Swanson said everyone spends a lot of time working on the robots trying to make it the best they can.

“We have shown to the district what we can do and what we are capable of,” the 11th-grader said. “It has allowed us to do more things. Without their support I don’t think we would be able to do what we are doing now.”

This year’s VEX robotics competition challenge is called Turning Point. The game is played on a 12’ x 12’ square field and there are two alliances, one red and one blue, that make up two teams each. The alliances compete in matches consisting of a 15-second autonomous period, followed by a two-minute, driver-controlled portion.

The goal of the game is to get the highest score than the opposing alliance, and they score points by completing a number of tasks including shooting balls at a colored flag, flipping caps to their designated color and climbing on a platform.

Carlie Flanagan, president of the Newfield robotics team said the team is looking forward to the upcoming competition.

“It’s a great experience,” the team president said. “It’s a competition, and we take it seriously, but we also try to have fun. There are a lot of teams that go once, but we are really lucky that we’ve been able to go the past three years.”

Kevin Swayze, lead builder and driver for the team, said it can get nervewracking sometimes during the elimination rounds in events, but it also builds confidence and he believes it’s a good experience overall.

Members of the Newfield Roverines. Photo by David Luces

“It’s really great. You meet people from different states and countries,” he said. “It’s fun, and it’s something you don’t get exposed to often.”

With the rise in demand of STEM-based education curricula in schools, the high schoolers agree that the exposure from being in the club has increased their interest in robotics, engineering and programming. Also, it has opened doors for them in their pursuit for a potential career down the line.

“A lot of the kids in the club have an interest and want to pursue it,” Parrinello said. “It is very fulfilling for me to see students excel.”

The CHS teacher said when students start in 9th grade, they are kind of green, and he tries to push them in a direction beginning with showing them the basic fundamentals of building a robot.

“People graduate, and the next class comes in there’s always those couple of kids that are really interested in it and that’s what I look for,” he said. “You look for the students that are inventive.”

Fitzgerald expressed similar sentiments saying he has a great group of students and a lot of them have a passion of going into the robotics field as well.

“By being here they are getting hands-on experience, learning how to write code and build robots,” he said.

Both Heffern and Flanagan plan on attending Worcester Polytechnic Institute in the fall to study robotics. CHS senior Aidan Donnelly plans on creating a VEX robotics team at his college.

The returning members on both teams hope to expand the club and team in the coming years 

“We want to expand the program and possibly have multiple teams, so everyone can get hands-on experience,” CHS 11th-grader Ide said.

NHS team member Jackson Mazer said around 50 students expressed interest in the club this past year. A majority of them were freshmen.

“One of our goals [in the beginning of the season] was to make it to this competition. Now all of our goals is to go further and maybe win this thing,” CHS 11th-grader Swanson said.