By Rachel Siford
Chris Pinkenburg has been trying to get Rocky Point students more interested in math and science. So he created his own robotics club called GearHeadz to do so. Because of this, he has been named a 2015 Times Beacon Record Newspapers Person of the Year.
Pinkenburg, a physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory, was inspired to create his own robotics club in the Rocky Point school district after attending an educational symposium at BNL. He thought this was the perfect way to get more students involved in engineering. GearHeadz is a privately run FIRST LEGO League team from Rocky Point.
“For years, he was the one who was very vocal about how having robotics in the school is important,” said Bea Ruberto, president of the Sound Beach Civic Association. “Encouraging science and technology is very important for kids.”
Pinkenburg has three children in the Rocky Point school district, all of whom have participated in his robotics club at one point.
“He is very passionate about education,” Wlodek Guryn, Pinkenburg’s colleague at BNL, said. “He wants children to learn as much as possible in school and give them as many opportunities as possible, which is also why he got involved in the robotics club.”
Pinkenburg started to prod his school district to implement a robotics club into the schools. He eventually formed his own private team that won first place in programming in the qualifiers the first time they competed. After this, a club was introduced to Rocky Point Middle School with Pinkenburg leading it as a mentor. They competed in a worldwide competition in St. Louis, Missouri.
According to Rocky Point Middle School Principal Scott O’Brien, the school was involved with a program associated with BNL that focused on math and science. There were multiple sections of the program, one of which was robotics.
“I had put out a survey looking for feedback about the program and the kids noted that the robotics section was their favorite part, and said they benefited the most from it,” O’Brien said. “We knew we needed to expand it, and, at the same time, Pinkenburg was there and created this club. A lot of kids are very highly interested in robotics. Over 100 students came to the first meeting.”
Each year, teams are presented with a new challenge and must try to develop a solution using robotics. This year’s theme is Trash Trek, which prompts them to explore the world of trash and invent a solution to help minimize trash issues. They must also build and program a LEGO robot to accomplish trash-themed missions on a playing field and show how well they work together as a team.
“The team has been very successful,” Ruberto said. “They won last year’s Long Island Championship and went on to compete in the North American Open Championships against 75 other national and international champions in California.”
As a physicist at BNL, Pinkenburg has been passionate about programming and simulations. One part of robotics is to build the robot itself, which is more engineering-based, but the other big part, which is Pinkenburg’s specialty, requires computing, which helps in programming the robot so it does exactly what it is meant to do.
“He is very pleasant and passionate, and works very hard on computing aspects and simulations of his work,” Guryn said. “He is very dedicated. Physics requires a lot of passion and dedication and he has a lot of both.”
Pinkenburg’s efforts are being spread to the high school, as he starts his FIRST Tech Challenge team, a higher-level team, to continue to spread his love for computing and physics.