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First Lego League

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The Rocky Point Middle School’s Robo Eagles, from left, coach Mark Moorman, Kristian Hald, Alex Grundmann, Matteo Gravinese, Neyo Alabi and Cooper Peterson, practice for the March 1 LEGO tournament. Photo by Kyle Barr

Alex Grundmann presses the button on the LEGO robotics piece, and he and his five teammates stare with held breath at the small four-wheeled device as it rolls down the table. The little machine, programmed and built by them from LEGOs, moves and pushes a tower to the correct position a few feet from its start. It’s just one task the students programmed it to do. 

The Rocky Point Robo Eagles, a middle school LEGO robotics team, placed in last month’s qualifiers, and will be competing March 1. Photo by Kyle Barr

Alex, 14, is just below eye height with his fellows on the Rocky Point Middle School Robotics team, but normally, that’s not the case. As he’s bound to a wheelchair because of cerebral palsy, he’s often a good foot lower to the ground and unable to reach the table at competitions that are about 3 feet up. 

But despite their ages, the students on the team had an engineering mind-set, and their first thought when Alex wanted to join the team in the eighth grade was, simply, why not a ramp?

Alex had participated in the club in sixth grade, which is a beginners course where students do not compete, unlike the other teams for later grades at both the middle and high schools. When it came time for seventh grade, Alex did not compete, saying he was originally daunted, knowing he couldn’t reach up to the tables.

His longtime friend at school, Cooper Peterson, asked him to come join the team.

“When I didn’t come back, you said you should come back and see what we can do,” Alex said of his friend. The coach initially told the student that, if he couldn’t reach the table, he could help in designing and programming, but that easily wasn’t enough for either Alex or anyone else on his team. 

The crew first made a ramp prototype out of pallet wood, and then later, Alex’s father, Richard, who works at Riverhead Building Supply, constructed the modern ramp out of varnished plywood. The ramp is made to fold up and roll around on caster wheels. 

“Honestly, I’m just happy,” Alex said and looked around at his teammates and coach. “I was a bit discouraged at first, but now I’m happy to meet fantastic people like you guys, to be able to compete and have fun doing it.” 

The robotics team also designed a lip for the top portion of the ramp to stop Alex or any other wheelchair-bound participant from accidentally rolling off.

Alex Grundmann has taken part in designing a ramp that allows him to participate in robotics competitions. Photo by Kyle Barr

For this year’s FIRST LEGO League qualifiers, the theme of the event was City Shaper, and students were asked to identify a problem in their community and resolve it. Interestingly for team coach Mark Moorman, the parameters of the contest were vague on just what community it was talking about.

“It could be your neighborhood, could be New York,” he said. “In this case, it was the robotics community — the problem with the robotics community is that it wasn’t accessible to kids in wheelchairs.”

The Rocky Point Robo Eagles placed fifth in the “table” section of the competition, which is the technical part of the robotics portion, but came in first for the project research award at the FLL qualifiers at Huntington High School Jan. 25. The team did their research project presentation on Americans with Disabilities Act compliance, and their display board included information about the ADA, details about their ramp and also an interview with FLL co-director Janet Anderson, with a quote saying, “We will try to implement this in our administration and possibly put online instructions to building a ramp on the FLL website,” with an additional promise to perhaps make such a ramp standard throughout the competition in the U.S.

The team got most of its points when Alex was up on the ramp, and with their efforts, the team has qualified for the Long Island championship March 1 at Longwood High School. Teams that place well in that punch tickets to either the nationals or the world tournament. 

Anderson declined to comment for the article on the project, saying it would not be fair to the other teams competing in early March.

Alex’s family was amazed at how their young family member and his team pulled this off. 

“I’m happy he’s allowed to be included and has something that he likes to do,” his younger sister Ava said. “Because he likes a lot of things, but he really likes robotics.”

Christine Vay, his grandmother, was even amazed at the innovation the students had pulled off.

“It’s such a simple idea, I’m surprised nobody had thought of it before,” she said.

Alex Grundmann uses the ramp for the first time at the Jan. 25 LEGO qualifiers.

Alex’s mother, Aisha Grundmann, said she has long tried to advocate for her son to never balk at any activity, whether it’s traveling internationally or even driving a boat or BMX riding. Not only is Alex making strides for himself in doing what he wants to do, but he’s also paving the way for others with disabilities to participate.

Moorman echoed the mother’s thoughts, saying this project goes beyond a simple middle school class presentation.

“STEM is absolutely super important, but how many students like Alex are out there and aren’t participating because they physically can’t?” he said. “My guess is the league was just never faced with this.”

Though this may be the first time a young person in a wheelchair showed he could compete in the LEGO competition, Alex’s mother said she doubted it was the first time anyone with such a disability has been discouraged from participating. Parents, she said, should never feel like their child can’t participate.

“It’s about making lives better for everyone else too,” she said.

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Rocky Point Middle School's Robo Eagles robotics team. Photo from Rocky Point school district

At Rocky Point Middle School, LEGO-building is serious business.

The school’s two robotics teams — Radical Robotix and Robo Eagles — will compete in the 14th annual FIRST LEGO League Long Island championship tournament in Longwood this March after taking home a total of three awards in the qualifying tournament Jan. 20.

Rocky Point Middle School’s Radical Robotic team. Photo from Rocky Point school district

“Both teams have worked very hard from the beginning of the school year and to be recognized for these efforts is outstanding,” club adviser Mark Moorman said. “I was thrilled that both teams qualified.”

During the high-stakes competition, held at Great Hollow Middle School in Nesconset, the Rocky Point students — grades 6 through 8 — squared off against 23 other robotics teams from across the region with programmable LEGO Mindstorm robots they started building in October.

Under this year’s theme of hydrodynamics, the students applied math, science and technology skills to build robots with the ability to complete water-related tasks, such as replacing water pipes and connecting water pumps, on a table-top playing field.

The teams had to present research projects identifying a problem and finding a solution related to the theme. During the tournament, judges evaluated the students based on teamwork and technical skills, as well as “gracious professionalism,” according to Moorman.

Robo Eagles:

Misha Zaslavsky

Leila Riedl

Zach Accetta

Alex Rosenberg

Marco Tanza

Felicity Monaghan

Oskar Chorzepa

As the results show, Rocky Point certainly made a splash.

The Robo Eagles received the Alliance Award for scoring the highest point total on the robot table and the Judges Award for “unique efforts, performance or dynamics.” The Radical Robotix took home a project research award for its desalination aviation life vest.

For the project, Radical Robotix determined that while each seat on an airplane is equipped with a life vest in case of emergency water landing, once a passenger is in the water, specifically seawater, he or she is left on their own to survive while waiting for rescue. The students developed a water bottle, attached to the vest, that would filter the salt and bacteria out of seawater and turn it into drinking water.

“We were so excited to win the project research award and qualify for the next tournament,” said Radical Robotix member seventh-grader Eve Hald. “It was fun getting to see our robot compete and to compete in the tasks that judges gave us.”

Radical Robotix:

Jake Bazata

C.J. McMillen

Sola Matsumoto

Eve Hald

Nick O’Shea

Maddy Knopke

Moorman said the two teams had a balanced mix of veteran robotics members and “newbies” — Radical Robotix has six members, Robo Eagles has seven. While he said members of the robotics club meet twice a week every other week and knew what to expect, it didn’t make the tournament any less chaotic.

“It seemed like when we were done with one aspect, like the Robot round, we had to move straight to another aspect, like the project presentation,” he said. “It was all happening very fast.”

Back at the middle school, Principal Scott O’Brien expressed his pride in the club’s performance.

“The students and advisers of the Rocky Point Middle School robotics teams work tirelessly throughout the year to compete in tournaments,” O’Brien said in a statement. “We are so proud of the robotics teams for qualifying for the championship tournament this March. Best of luck to both teams and their advisers.”

The Rocky Point GearHeadz with coach Chris Pinkenburg, a physicist at Brookhaven National Lab. File photo by Desirée Keegan

“It’s finally happening,” award-winning Rocky Point-area robotics coach Chris Pinkenburg said. “After six years in the making we will have a FIRST Robotics Competition team.”

This was the goal for him and his GearHeadz since day one. The team competed in lower divisions in the FIRST LEGO League to build experience and grow to be able to compete in the higher-level league.

In February, the team was crowned Second Place Champions in the FLL Long Island Championship Tournament and went on to represent the area in the North American Open Invitational Championship Tournament in May. The GearHeadz competed against 74 teams — all regional and state champions from the U.S. and Canada, as well as international guests from Germany and South Korea.

The team’s hard work paid off, as the GearHeadz claimed second place in programming in its final year as an FLL team. This award recognizes a team that utilizes outstanding programming principles, including clear, concise and reusable code that allows their robot to perform challenge missions autonomously and consistently. The team also placed in fifth place overall.

“It’s very heartening to see kids involved in this kind of work. We’re proud of what they have been able to accomplish and we wish them more success in the future.”

— Jane Alcorn

It is the second championship win in a row for two members, and the third championship win for two of the founding members.

As a result of its continued growth, the GearHeadz gained a new science connection.

The GearHeadz now have affiliation with the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe in Shoreham, and the future collaboration will help the team as it ventures into the FRC.

A more advanced team needs more space than the Pinkenburgs’ basement, which is where the team currently practices and builds.

“Space is the biggest problem, so I approached the Tesla Science Center in April or May to see if they would be interested to host a robotics team,’ Pinkenburg said. “They are absolutely in favor of this. It also fits well into their plans for the science center.”

The Tesla Science Center, while currently working on turning some of the lab into a museum, is also working on hosting space for local community groups and an incubator where scientists can conduct experiments, build and share ideas. While the space is not going to be ready for this upcoming season, which begins in January, the plan is to move to permanent housing next season.

“With the Tesla Science Center we have a long-term future,” Pinkenburg said.

The center’s president, Jane Alcorn, hopes the partnership will give the team more visibility and  said it’s exactly the kind of thing the site wants to foster and work with and would like the team to one day be Tesla’s GearHeadz.

“Since Tesla is one of the fathers of robotics it seems very appropriate,” she said. Nikola Tesla also invented the first remote control. “Part of our mission is to have groups like this.”

The Rocky Point-based robotics team, GearHeadz, after competing in the North American Open Invitational Tournament. File photo from Chris Pinkenburg
The Rocky Point-based robotics team, GearHeadz, after competing in the North American Open Invitational Tournament. File photo from Chris Pinkenburg

But besides space, an FRC team needs more money. That’s where Bohemia-based North Atlantic Industries came in. The organization contacted Pinkenburg after FIRST pointed it in Rocky Point’s direction. The company offered to sponsor the GearHeadz with up to $6,000 dollars in matching funds.

“This was really great news,” Pinkenburg said. “It was the breakthrough we needed.”

In order to compete in 2017, the GearHeadz must raise at least $15,000 to purchase equipment and pay the FRC fees. The six-week season begins in January, but the team must come up with the funding by mid-November. So far, the group has raised close to $3,000, and the matching grant enables the team to pay for the $6,000 registration fee that is due this month.

The registration comes with a robot base kit and one competition, which will take place from the end of March to the beginning of April at Hofstra University.

“We still need additional material for the robot — you are allowed to spend $4,000 but my guess is that it’ll be around $1,500,” Pinkenburg said. “We need tools — we have some promises for donations in that department already — and we would like to participate in a second competition, which is another $4,000. That’s where the $15,000 comes from. If we match the money from North Atlantic Industries we’ll be close to this.”

Pinkenburg said from his team’s past experience he believes the GearHeadz are well-prepared to have a good start in its new division. Since it’s a community-based team — not limited by school district boundaries when accepting new members — he hopes that the team can continue to grow.

“I hope that this will turn into something where many kids from the North Shore communities profit from,” he said.

Information about the team and a sponsor form may be found on the GearHeadz’ website at www.rockypointroboticsclub.com. The group also set up a GoFundMe site: www.gofundme.com/Gearheadz. 

“We’re excited to see what this robotics club can do, especially since they’re doing so well,” Alcorn said. “It’s very heartening to see kids involved in this kind of work. We’re proud of what they have been able to accomplish and we wish them more success in the future.”