Update: The Sewanhaka Robotics Club has since qualified for the FIRST Tech Challenge Long Island Championship after achieving victory at the qualifier competition on Jan. 12.
Long after classes end at Sewanhaka High School and many students head home, there’s one group that stays well into the evening, with members doing their part to advance the disciplines of engineering and computer programming.
The students come from across the Sewanhaka Central High School District to take part in the district’s Robotics Club. Since September, members have spent more than 250 hours building their own robot to take part in the 2018 FIRST Tech Challenge Rover Ruckus competition on Jan. 6.
The contest pits high school robotics clubs against one another, and judges award the teams points based on their robots’ abilities, as well as the team’s presentation of its work. While the Sewanhaka Robopandas team had a good showing at the first Rover Ruckus competition — ranking overall second in the event’s competition — it failed this time to qualify for the 2018 Long Island Championship. Still, the team has two more chances. Sewanhaka Robotics Club adviser Jack Chen said he was optimistic that his team would make the cut this year, and that students had worked hard to conquer every part of the challenge.
“The whole competition encompasses their technical, organizational, business and public speaking skills,” Chen said. “Their work and success with the club here prepares them for a career in STEM,” or Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.
Chen has been in charge of the district’s Robotics Club for nine years, after taking over as the Instrumentation and Automation course teacher. In his time with the club, the Sewanhaka RoboPandas team has earned more than a dozen awards competing in FIRST challenge events, with the team making it to the world championships in 2013 and 2015.
Chen noted that recent teams have grown in size and diversity. The 2018-19 team has an equal number of boys and girls in the club, a significant difference from the early years when it was mostly boys.
Tenth-grader Brianna Venkatasami said she was quickly welcomed when she first joined. She watched videos online of students competing in previous challenges, she said, and was curious about the work that went into the robots. “After watching them on YouTube, I wanted to be part of these teams,” Venkatasami said. “And I liked learning about all the other aspects that go into competing at the First Tech Challenges.”
Chen said that students love the community service and learning aspects of the club and the challenge event. The students have been heavily involved in tutoring and mentoring local and other schools’ robotics clubs, and have visited technology companies, including Google its headquarters in New York City, to learn about future careers in engineering and programming. Students have also documented their work in a more than 300-page technical record — the same type of record that professional engineers keep.
Gabe Wong, the club’s vice president, helps prepare teammates for the presentation portion of the competition, which takes into account the club’s activities outside of designing and building. Wong had taken part in the FIRST Lego League Challenge, a competition for children in grades four through eight, at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City in 2015. There, he watched the Sewanhaka team compete in the FTC event and received an invitation from Chen to join the district team. Wong immersed himself in the club and eventually followed Chen, commuting between Sewanhaka High School and New Hyde Park Memorial High School.
“To be honest, I’m here at the club more than I am at my own school,” Wong joked.
Because the group spends hundreds of hours together in the school’s Career and Technical Education building, the Robotics Club has become something of a family, members noted, with students tackling complex problems while sharing snacks and meals together. The “Snacks Club,” as they jokingly refer to it, seeks out-of-the-box innovations for use in the competitions. Chen remarked that it took the students 15 attempts to develop a hook system that would allow their robot to lower and lift itself from its starting position.
Club President Thomas Von Holten, a senior from Floral Park Memorial High School, said that the bulk of the work involves designing systems to allow the robot to overcome any obstacle that it might face. That involves building its constituent parts and systems, and redesigning and upgrading them if they fail. Von Holten added that it can be frustrating if the robot does not perform as planned during a competition.
“Getting through each problem gives us a sense of satisfaction because when you get it to work, you can see the results of all those hours of labor,” Von Holten said. “When I came in, I knew nothing about robotics, and considering that I’m now the president, it proves that anyone can do this.”
Just before the Jan. 6 competition, the students worked out the kinks in the robot’s hook system, preventing it from climbing back on its lander, scoring more points for the team. But the students were determined to strengthen the robot for the next set of qualifiers on Jan. 12 at Nassau Community College. Sewanhaka High School will host the third set of qualifiers on Feb. 9 and 10, with 56 teams competing.