Members of the Pierson High School robotics team gathered in the school’s technology room on Saturday to make final adjustments to their robot in preparation for a FIRST robotics regional competition that was held at Hofstra University in Hempstead earlier this week.
The team expected to know by Wednesday afternoon if it qualified for the national competition, slated for Houston from April 20 to 23.
This is the 27th year of competition for Pierson’s Team 28, which made its first attempt to foray into the world of robotics in 1995 and has become one of the longest competing teams in the FIRST competitions.
In fact, the team’s number is indicative of its veteran status. FIRST teams are assigned a permanent number the first time they compete. Teams are now being assigned numbers in the 3,500 range.
“It’s kind of crazy if you look at videos from even 20 years ago,” said Brandon Buscemi, a technology teacher who is in his first year helping advise the robotics club. “The way robotics has advanced from then to now is just ridiculous.”
Susan McCarthy, a history teacher, is the main advisor. Despite her background in the liberal arts, she said she knew her way around a shop, thanks to her grandfather, a master craftsman who taught her how to use hand tools.
Tom Ruhl, who is also a social studies teacher, admitted “I’m learning just as much as the students are,” as he bravely used a band saw with a special blade to cut a piece of aluminum hardware for the robot.
And the learning goes on until the robot is packed in a shipping container for the competition.
Buscemi said that during a qualifying competition earlier this month in Albany, one of the large balls the robot was supposed to lift bounced off the top of the machine and managed to hit the on / off switch, disabling it for the duration of the round.
The solution? The tiny switch is now protected by a cylindrical piece of plastic cut from a plastic cup.
Tyler Mitchell, a junior who is vice president of the robotics club, is a veteran team member. He is the main driver and does programming for the machine. He said this year’s competition involves asking robots to shoot or place large balls into a high funnel or a lower one. A second phase of the competition will award points for robots that extend their arms and climb a series of bars, like a child swinging on monkey bars at the playground.
“It’s not a year-round project,” he said. “We were given a time frame of six weeks to build the robot. Some of the important lessons are about adaptation and planning ahead. ”
Because COVID-19 canceled competitions the last two years and some club members drifted away during the pandemic, the team is on the inexperienced side this year. That showed at Albany, Mitchell said, where the robot suffered a number of mechanical problems, but those setbacks also offer learning opportunities, he said. “It’s about the journey and not the destination, and it gives kids a chance to learn about technology, engineering and definitely teamwork.”
Sophomore Jeyda Acar is new to the team this year and is following in the footsteps of her older sister, Esrin, who has since graduated. “I would definitely tell other students to join,” she said. “It’s a fun experience to work with your peers and learn to be more creative.”
Melissa Mitchell, Tyler’s mother, is the team’s parent mentor. She said the competitions have the same intensity and excitement of a sporting event.
“Hofstra gets very competitive,” said Buscemi, who was a member of Brentwood High School’s 2013 team. “It’s intense.”
That’s partly because Long Island teams take the competition seriously, but also because the Hofstra competition draws a number of foreign teams.
McCarthy said it’s not always about competition, but sometimes about cooperation. As an example, she said that a team from Brazil had shipped its robots to Pierson for storage before the match, and Pierson had agreed to bring its competitor’s robots to Hofstra for the match.
Pierson has been backed by a number of sponsors this year, especially its chief sponsor, Joe Ialacci of Yacht Hampton Boating Club, a day charter business, who stopped by the school on Saturday to wish the team well.
McCarthy also said Pierson had won a $ 6,000 grant from the Gene Haas Foundation to help with travel expenses, materials and scholarships for college-bound students.