The gymnasium at Half Hollow Hills High School West pulsed with energy as students from 23 schools met for a robotics competition in Dix Hills on Saturday.
The students — and the robots they programmed — were cheered on by fans in the bleachers waving flags and wielding light-up signs and pompoms during the Half Hollow Hills Robotics Invitational. In the arena below, the bots whizzed around in a game dubbed Charged Up, in which three-team alliances collect cones and cubes to add to their “energy grids” and balance on a platform before two minutes are up.
STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — programs have gained traction across Long Island as interest has grown at the college level, since entry-level jobs in technology and business are among the highest-paying.
“When you watch robotics in real life, they are everywhere, from health organizations to vacuum cleaners,” said Bertram Dittmar, Long Island’s executive director for competition sponsor FIRST, an acronym for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.
Whether the teens go on to pursue careers in STEM or not, proponents laud the robotics programs for preparing the students for the real world.
“They’re doing finance, leadership. They have to be accountable, they’re strategizing,” said Babu Kudaravalli, 58, a Dix Hills engineer and father of two who has remained an assistant coach long after his children graduated.
The robots showcased at Saturday’s invitational are a testament to months of hard work that began last winter. At the beginning of a new school year, Kudaravalli said it’s an opportunity to give younger students and parents a glimpse at what the program is all about.
“We try to play to each other’s strengths,” said Miraj Shah, 17, a Bethpage High School senior on the Regal Eagles team, who said he enjoys the teamwork required. He estimates it took eight weeks last year for the initial build and said the team met over the summer to make adjustments.
On the sidelines, teams worked nimbly to make last-minute tweaks and repairs before their next bout began.
Shah’s teammate, 16-year-old Noor Fatima, soldered wires back together while others replaced a motor on the fly. With theirs broken beyond repair, another team offered their spare.
“We all have to work together to build this, and it’s really nice,” Fatima said.
In another corner of the gym, Southold High School’s team prepared for its next match.
Last year, the four-team alliance Southold was part of finished in second place at the FIRST championship in Houston, a competition that included more than 600 teams.
“We’re learning from every match that we play,” said Southold senior Sofia Gillan, 16. “We take mental notes … small things can make a difference.”
Among those notes were adding rubber grips to better hold the rounded cubes and a door hinge mechanism so the arms don’t snap if — when — the robot is hit on the playing field.
Fellow senior Flynn Klipstein, 17, estimates the team has spent upward of 400 hours on their bot and is gearing up to start from scratch in January, when the new game is announced. “We have high hopes for this year,” he said.
In addition to sweat equity, Southold co-mentor Bob Gammon said students raise money for the program, including about $4,500 on the robot itself, plus thousands more for competition and travel expenses.
“It’s not that we use kids to build robots,” Gammon said. “We use robots to build kids.”