CLIFTON PARK, N.Y. — Anyone walking into the technology wing of Shenendehowa High School East on Tuesday evening, Feb. 19, would never have guessed the school was out for midwinter break.
At 9 p.m. the classrooms and hallways were busy with activity. Close to 100 students moved quickly and quietly from room to room with a focused intensity that was immune to any distraction. The students were members of Shen’s robotics team, Team 20 the Rocketeers
Most had been there since early in the day as had many of the team’s coaches and mentors. Now, everyone was set on making the final adjustments to the robot the team had built in just six weeks for the FIRST Robotics 2019 Competition.
Shen became a member of inventor Dean Kamen’s FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Competition shortly after the initial competition was held in a New Hampshire high school gym in 1992.
Kamen created the FIRST Competition to draw the interest of young people who might never consider science and technology as a career. To do it, he combined the excitement of sports with the rigors of the two academic fields.
This year’s competitive game is called Destination Deep Space. As it has in recent years, the Shen team has built a competitive robot as well as a practice robot, Apollo 1 and Apollo 2 respectively.
And, for the second year in a row, Team 20’s freshmen have built their own robot using the same guidelines. The 37-member freshmen unit was hard at work last Tuesday night also, racing to complete their robot named Herbie.
In one of the rooms team members along with mentors gently held safety ropes for Apollo 1 as its driver-tested one of the robot's software programs. This particular program would allow the team to score more points in the upcoming competition. It was a difficult maneuver and the room was tense as the driver got the heavy machine to raise upward.
Shen senior, Isabel Rodriques, was asked how everyone knew where to go and what to do.
“It depends on what sub-team you’re working on or what project you’re assigned to; knowing your role and what things you have to accomplish,” she said.
The team’s coach is Rose Barra, Academic Administrator for Technology, Business, and Family and Consumer Science. She added to Rodriques’ answer.
“We give them choices which sub-team they want to join,” Barra said. “For instance, the engineering team and the manufacturing team work on the mechanical design programming. There’s an Enterprise Team, a Business Team, a number of choices.”
Barra has been a team coach for 15 years and is well versed in FIRST’s unique culture and its approach to competition through the values of “gracious professionalism” and “coopertition”, a word created from cooperation and competition. To be competitive, all teams must demonstrate examples of both terms.
“Hudson City Schools has no computer programming so some of the members of our team worked all one weekend recently helping them program their robot,” Barra said. “Those are examples of gracious professionalism and coopertition.”
One of the team’s younger mentors who was part of last week's build completion was Carl Springli, a Shen graduate and former Team 20 member himself. Springli was one of many mentors who were helping late into the night.
“I’m here helping because it’s a blast and I have a lot of fun doing it,” he said. “It’s very fulfilling to provide these students the same opportunities I had when I was here. It made a big impact on my life. By being here I’m paying it forward.”
As the upper-class members of Team 20 worked on the two Apollos, the team’s freshmen were hard at work doing the same with Herbie. Lauren Malek said she was drawn to the team after her CIM (computer integrated manufacturing) teacher gave a demonstration using last year’s robot.
“I’ve found it interesting; crazy with fun in the crazy sort of way where there’s a calm in the center of the storm,” she said. “I always wanted to learn to code and I did. It’s exciting, stuff I never thought I’d learn to do. It was an opportunity that I saw and I took it.”
Shen senior, Justin Killian, is part of Apollo’s mechanical sub-team. He worked on the robot’s lift mechanism, the drive train, and the elevator. Killian was informed recently that he’d won a FIRST Robotics Scholarship. In the fall, he’ll be heading to Clarkson University, where he wants to major in mechanical engineering.
“I was advised to join the club in the eighth-grade, but I never did,” he said during a pause before the final push to complete Apollo 1. “I joined last year as a junior and it’s been amazing. I went to a non-competitive meet in Nov. 2017 in Rochester, saw it all right in front of me, and knew it was absolutely the right thing.”
Ruth Weston was another senior working late last week. After doing some work on stage with the Drama Club, Weston found herself drawn to the stage crew and its hands-on manufacturing.
“I had some friends who were on the Robotics team and they got me into it,” she said. “I went to the Ra Cha Cha Ruckus in Rochester in 2017 and found it amazing what they could do. I’ve learned so much on the team. They teach you so much here as preparation for life.”
Team 20 co-captain Joseph Friedman was also working late helping prepare Apollo 1 for competition. A senior, Friedman plans to study mechanical engineering in college and find work in the field upon graduation.
“This presents a unique opportunity that no other class or club can offer,” he said. “It allows you to apply all of the skills that we’ve learned from our technology, math, and other classes into an almost real-world situation where we have this problem, we have all these resources, and there’s no set procedure as to how to do it or find a solution. To have that opportunity as a high school student is hard to pass up. And, the end result is really cool.”