High school competitions might typically take place on the field or in the gym, but one burgeoning sport has students exercising a different muscle: their minds.
Niskayuna and Mohonasen students recently competed at the regional FIRST Tech Challenge Championship Tournament at Pace University in Pleasantville, and were among 36 teams of high school students bringing robots they spent months creating into the limelight. Three teams of Niskayuna students competed along with one team from Mohonasen.
Teachers leading the teams at each district tout the program as an outlet for students interested in engineering and technology that applies skills from other fields.
“It is an extension of the things they learn in school,” said Carl DeCesare, an engineering and technology teacher at Niskayuna. “STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) is really popular these days and it definitely includes all those four courses, but it is huge with other things, too, such as communication.”
Students in the program design and build their own robot using aluminum, polycarbonate, motors and servos, sensors and other materials. Those robots then compete in a game that changes each year. At the tournament, teams compete in a series of matches and are partnered with another team. After finishing qualifying matches, the best teams choose their partners for the elimination rounds.
George Reluzco, a technology teacher at Mohonasen, described the atmosphere at Pace as a “noisy, animated environment,” with matches running continuously throughout the day.
“It is a very high energy event and they are scrambling to get ready for their matches,” Reluzco said. “When you watch it, it almost looks like they are a NASCAR pit crew.”
No local team ended up at the top of the ranks once the motors stopped. The “MohonBots” finished 17th, and the teams from Niskayuna, “The Greasers,” “01010100 01000101 01000001 01001101” and “Nisky iBots” finished 22nd, 26th and 35th, respectively. But the competition was about more than just winning – and that’s no cliché in this sport.
“To me, it is like you can’t lose,” DeCesare said. “If you are kid on this team you gain so much experience and knowledge.”
Evan Desso, a ninth-grade Niskayuna student, said all three of his school’s teams ended up performing well. Seeing their designs work after putting lots of effort into designing a robot was rewarding, too.
“None of us were seniors on the team so we can all do it again next year,” Desso said.
Desso said he thought it would be fun to join the robotics team, but it was a little more difficult than he first imagined.
“I thought it would be a lot more easier than it actually was. It took a lot of time to develop and come up with ideas that work,” Desso said. “It felt really good ‘cause we got it done and we were going to use the robot that we made and took forever to make.”
This was Niskayuna’s first year running the program. DeCesare got the idea to start the team from Reluzco. This was Mohonasen’s third year competing. Mohonasen and Niskayuna both received a $2,000 grant from Bechtel Group Foundation to support the FIRST Tech Challenge robotics program.
“When he told me about that grant, I jumped on it,” DeCesare said.
Bechtel also provided employees to help mentor the teams as they designed their robots. Bechtel, an engineering and construction company, operates the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory in Niskayuna for the US Department of Energy.
The two schools run the robotics programs differently, with Niskayuna running it as a club for all high school students and Mohonasen offering it as a course to seniors completing a series of technology electives.
“We try to promote this and we show the middle school kids this is what you can do when you become a senior in high school,” Reluzco said. “We definitely use it as a tool to recruit more students into the area of technology.
Reluzco and DeCesare both have plans to try and reach students at a younger age through different programs offered by FIRST.
“I see part of my role as a coach is to make sure we build a pipeline for those kids that are interested in robotics … and make it a natural progression for the kids and community,” DeCesare said.