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Robot all-stars: LI high school students compete

Patchogue-Medford High School sophomore Ardan Martinez, 15, speaks

Patchogue-Medford High School sophomore Ardan Martinez, 15, speaks to students about participating in the school Robotics Team 329. (Sept. 12, 2012) Credit: Heather Walsh

The red robot whirred loudly and with the press of a button launched a basketball about 12 feet in the air.

A student -- one of 40 encircling the contraption outside Patchogue-Medford High School earlier this month -- caught the ball.

"You built that in six weeks?" an onlooker murmured. "Wow."

Inspiring awe was part of the afternoon agenda, aimed at enticing freshmen to join the school's robotics team. It is one of 42 such teams across Long Island expected to come together this fall, preparing for next year's FIRST Robotics Competition. The acronym comes from "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology."

Many participants go on to study those subjects, plus engineering and math, in college and pursue related careers, which is the mission of FIRST, a New Hampshire-based nonprofit. Colleges and universities, professional associations and corporations offered more than 675 scholarships totaling nearly $15 million this past school year to high school students on FIRST teams nationwide, said Cheryl Walsh, the organization's senior marketing director.

"Every single student . . . who has written one of their [college] entry essays about their participation in the robotics program has never been denied their number one school," Kevin Ray, Patchogue-Medford's dean of students and robotics adviser, said to freshmen. "That's the type of scope this has for your future."

Guided by advisers and volunteer mentors, students have just six weeks to design and construct a robot from a kit of parts. It performs in a "game" designed by Yale University and Cirque du Soleil engineers. Games have ranged from hanging as many inflated plastic shapes as possible on a grid to scoring soccer balls in goals on a field with bumps and opposing teams.

Fifty-four thousand high school students, representing 2,700 teams around the world, are expected to compete in 2013 FIRST Robotics events, Walsh said.

"Not only are they learning the ins and outs of science and technology, but also they're learning how to work together as a team," said Ginny Greco, director of the School-Business Partnerships of Long Island Inc.'s LI FIRST regional contest held in early April at Hofstra University.

Competitions have an atmosphere similar to major sporting events, with flashing lights, cheering fans and DJs blasting music. "It's like a big party full of nerds," said Patchogue-Medford senior Lexi Smaldone, 16, of Medford.

The path to contests presents challenges. First, there's the cost.

An entry fee of $5,000 for veteran teams -- $6,500 for rookie teams -- pays for one regional competition and the kit of parts. Teams that compete in additional regionals pay $4,000 for each. Qualifying teams pay another $5,000 to enter the world championship in St. Louis. That excludes airfare, lodging and meals, as well as fees to ship the robot.

Most teams have sponsors and some school districts provide financial support in their budgets. Teams also hold fundraisers to fill the gaps.

Patchogue-Medford's team, for instance, is sponsored by Motorola Solutions, which typically donates $20,000 to cover three entry fees and $5,000 for additional expenses such as materials, Ray said.

The Patchogue-Medford district pays for advisers and traveling expenses for the national competition, and budgets for additional materials to complete the robot. The Longwood school district supports the program in its budget, and the Plainview-Old Bethpage and Hauppauge districts pay for initial entry fees, team advisers said.

Debbie Lang, a robotics adviser at Longwood High School in Middle Island, described getting sponsors as "a full-time job" in itself.

But, she said, "You cannot put a value on what is gained by everyone throughout the program. Their faces light up after they turn on the robot for the first time and it actually works."

Students' efforts toward that point begin in the fall when they meet weekly to review concepts like computer programing, welding and electronics. In the first week of January, students learn about "the game" at Stony Brook University, then immediately begin developing prototypes and testing designs.

"When they release the game, there's so many different ways to approach it," said Mark McLeod, an adviser for Hauppauge High School's team. "When you go to the competition, no two robots look the same. I find that to be amazing."

Tim Oliveira, 16, of Medford, said the Patchogue-Medford team overcomes challenges by "working together and sharing ideas."

During the six-week building period, the team becomes almost like a family, staying after school until midnight some weeknights and meeting on Saturdays. Ray requires that students complete homework before they can work in the lab, and they must pass all of their classes to participate in competitions.

Each team must crate and ship its robot to a specified storage facility or zip-tie it and sign a document at the end of the six weeks, so no one has an unfair advantage at regional competitions, which are held on various dates.

Because Patchogue-Medford is sponsored by Motorola Solutions, the team uses some of its money to build a second "beta robot," identical to the robot completed during the six weeks, Ray said. That helps the team continue testing and working out kinks, he said.

The biggest hurdle is ensuring that the robot doesn't break, said Ray. When breakdowns do occur, opposing teams often offer spare parts -- embodying the "gracious professionalism" tenet that students in FIRST learn.

"It's one of the things that we stress," said Steven Kunz, robotics adviser at Plainview-Old Bethpage's John F. Kennedy High School in Plainview. "We're here to win, but we're not going to win at someone else's expense."

Patchogue-Medford received an award at the world championship in 2011 for building five water-filtration systems that collectively processed 40,000 liters of water to kill off pathogens in Haiti after the country's devastating earthquake.

"To see someone across the world almost, using something I built with my own hands, it was really rewarding," said Jonathan Smaldone, 19, of Medford, now a second-year student at Rochester Institute of Technology, who received a $6,000 annual FIRST scholarship.

Patchogue-Medford freshman Billy Miller, standing amid milling and welding machines, was eager to sign up for a similar experience.

"It was amazing for me to see what kids could do," said Miller, 13, of Patchogue. "I am willing to put in as much time as I need to go to the world championship."

LI FIRST teams

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was founded in 1989 by entrepreneur Dean Kamen, a Rockville Centre native who created what became the Segway PT. The not-for-profit organization is based in Manchester, N.H.


Patchogue-Medford High School Team 329: 2011 FIRST World Championship Team Spirit Award

Hauppauge High School Team 358: 2010 Long Island Regional Winner

Longwood High School Team 564: 2012 Long Island Regional Chairman's Award

Plainview-Old Bethpage John F. Kennedy High School Team 353: 2009 Long Island Regional Chairman's Award


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