Rocky Point robotics team rocks national stage

Rocky Point robotics team rocks national stage

GearHeadz bring home two awards from California

The GearHeadz robotics team displays its national trophy at Legoland in California. Photo from Chris Pinkenburg

What started with a small group of kids in a Long Island basement ended with cheers when the Rocky Point-area GearHeadz robotics team ran down the isle at Legoland in California to collect a national trophy.

“It was the greatest feeling ever,” GearHeadz coach Chris Pinkenburg said of how well his team produced on such a grand stage, to receive a fifth-place robot game and second-place programming award. “I’m extremely proud of them. They’re a very independent, unselfish team that can figure out a lot of problems on their own.”

The team competed in the FIRST LEGO League Long Island championship tournament back in February and was crowned second-place champion. From there, it competed on the national stage against 74 teams, including regional and state champions from the United States and Canada, as well as international guests from Germany and South Korea.

Each year, For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, which was founded in 1989, presents a theme under which teams solve real-world problems and build and program a robot to compete in missions.

The theme this time around was Trash Trek, so students had to present a project that could be the solution to an environmental hazard. The GearHeadz tried over 20 times and eventually came up with the right recipe for biodegradable bags that would limit the mass death of sea turtles and other marine life from accidental ingestion of plastic.

The GearHeadz’s robot base and some of its attachments used to complete missions. Photo by Desirée Keegan
The GearHeadz’s robot base and some of its attachments used to complete missions. Photo by Desirée Keegan

“We’ve worked together well as a team,” said Pinkenburg’s 14-year-old son Jade. “We’ve solved a lot of problems and succeeded on the Long Island and national stage.”

Speaking of problems, his team ran into a big one at nationals.

“The first two rounds went really, really bad,” Chris Pinkenburg said. “We got back from the second round and sat down together to try to figure out what’s wrong with our robot. It behaved very differently from previous times.”

Recently turned 14-year-old Jen Bradley discovered a bad cable, when she started wiggling it and noticed that the sensor reading was changing. Thankfully it’s only your best round that counts, and the team had spent so much time fixing its robot that it had minutes to get ready to perform for the third time.

“Everything depended on that last round,” Pinkenburg said.

The robot performed well, which earned the team fifth place.

“We have a lot of smart people here that work really hard,” 14-year-old Rex Alex said. “We put in the time and effort and we get results. It was a big stage, a new experience for me, and we had the pressure on us, but we rose to the occasion.”

Bradley and the Pinkenburg bunch had been there before but had never garnered a national award.

“We’re finally one of the best teams in the country. That’s nice,” Pinkenburg said, laughing. “Hard work does pay off. It’s a total team win.”

It was the culmination of five years of hard work while learning and striving to improve.

For 13-year-old Julius Condemi, it was interesting to meet and compete against so many different types of teams.

“It was really cool to see everyone’s methods of finishing the missions to get high scores,” he said. “The competitions are energetic and it’s busy, but it’s a lot of fun.”

The GearHeadz group even works with other teams to help, something Pinkenburg said makes the program unique.

“It’s competing against technical problems, not other teams,” he said. “The kids show gracious professionalism when helping other teams. The camaraderie is good and I can see the progress. It’s an amazing gift to watch that and to help them on their way.”

The GearHeadz are hoping to move up to a higher level of competition. Photo by Desirée Keegan
The GearHeadz are hoping to move up to a higher level of competition. Photo by Desirée Keegan

As the kids are nearing the end of the age limit to compete in the FLL, the team is working to raise a minimum of $15,000 to compete in the FIRST Robotics Challenge, in which they will design, build, program and operate 120-pound robots to compete in floor games.

To be a part of this league is why Pinkenburg first created a team. A perk to being a part of this league is that it offers scholarships.

“Boeing, Grumman, Intel, they hire you afterward,” he said. “They see it as a means to attract talent and make them known to talent.”

Clayton Mackay, also 14 years old, mainly builds attachments for the base of the robot, which could involve adding pieces that compress air or use springs, to complete the different missions. He was a friend to a lot of the teammates, like Julius and Rex, before joining the team, which he said has helped them be able to work together to be able to compete at a higher level. It also wouldn’t have been possible without their coach, who has been a huge source of knowledge.

“He’s a really nice guy who knows so much,” Mackay said. “He’s a great coach. I’ve really enjoyed being a part of this team.”

Jade has learned a lot from and about his father during the process, and Pinkenburg has seen his son mature during the process.

“It’s brought out the best in him,” he said. “The social skills, dealing with the other teams, he’s really progressed tremendously. They all learned a lot about engineering and I see the personal development as the kids grow and evolve.”

Bradley said being on the team has been the highlight of grade school.

“It’s always been a big part of my life,” she said of robotics. “It’s really incredible. I’ve learned a lot about perseverance, about teamwork. I’ve made a lot of friendships while learning a lot.”

For more information about the team or to help donate to help them reach the next stage of the competition, visit the team’s website at