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RHS robotics team wins big at regional state championship, qualifies for international competition

RIVERHEAD HIGH SCHOOL ROBOTICS TEAM - Left to right - Kyler Driscoll, Jason Thompson, Quint Nigro, Eric Behr, Darwin Viera, Brandon Escobar, Forrest Vail, Alec Buczinski, Alae Mohammad, Connor Batjer, Yash Patel, Jorge Varela, Jonathan Drozd, and RHS Robotics Coach Luke Ferland. Courtesy photo: Riverhead Central School District

Walk into Riverhead High School’s robotics classroom and you’ll see an example of how school as a place for readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmetic has evolved into a place for 21st-century learning.

Luke Ferland is the teacher who oversees the two-year-old robotics program which has lead to two teams entering the Southern New York State Championship this year. One team was named a tournament champion and won the judges’ award and a $50 gift certificate from a vendor of supplies for educational robotic software.

Students on the tournament champion team include Connor Batjer, Eric Behr, Hosea Blancarte, Alec Buczynski, Kyler Driscoll, Brandon Escobar, Quint Nigro, Forrest Vail, Jorge Varela, and Darwin Viera. In addition, Jason Thompson, Alae Mohammad, Yash Patel and Jonathan Drozd took part in the competition.

The tournament champion team is now eligible to compete in the VEX Robotics World Championship. Now entering its 10th year, the competition will bring together the top 1,400 student-led robotics teams from around the world to Louisville, Kentucky, from April 19 to 25, 2017. The competition will culminate with finals, awards, and a team party on Saturday, April 22.

According to Ferland, the two robots that Riverhead entered into the competition were vastly different. One focused on plowing scoring objects (stars and beanbags) under the fence and knocking stars off the top of the fence onto the other side.

The other robot, which had arms, would collect scoring objects, lift them up, and dump them on the other side over the top of the fence. This robot also had the ability to score points autonomously (without the need for the driver controlling the robot). The students developed and wrote code that was programmed into the robot’s microcomputer. When this code was initialized, the robot would lower its arms, move forward, turn, drive forward, open its arms, move forward, close its arms to collect the bean bag, turn, move to the fence, lift its arms over the fence, and, lastly, dispense the bean bag over the fence to score points without any driver input.

Click here to see a video of robots tackling this task.

Walk into the robotics classroom and you might see students sitting at computers learning how to code and write programs. Or you might see them sitting in small groups sharing knowledge and strategies to solve complex problems for an upcoming competition. On another day the groups might be assembling robotic components — arms, drive mechanisms, levers, pulleys, “hands” that grab objects and the microcomputer brain that controls the machine.

Ferland stressed how interdisciplinary the class is. “It takes an understanding of the math used to program the robot and a knowledge of physics to make this happen,” he said.

“The robotics class is a year-long course that focuses heavily on mechatronics and computer programming/coding,” Ferland said. Students learn how to solve problems by implementing various engineering disciplines and principles. This class differs from a typical academic class in the fact that a large portion of the class is hands-on and focuses on engineering, coding, and physics. This is a class in a league of its own because it takes core STEM subject areas and makes them incredibly real world and hands-on.

“A huge component to this class is communication,” the teacher said. “Team members need to possess technical information and the knowledge to develop strategies, and also the ability to communicate with other team members. I am very proud of all my students.”

Eric Behr, a 10th grader agreed. “Because this was my first year in the robotics class and only our second competition this year, I am very proud of our team. We thought we would go home early, but because of our commitment and teamwork we were able to push through and succeed,” he said.

One of Eric’s classmates, Kyler Driscoll was excited because the teams are not very experienced since the program is so young. “Being one of the newest and most inexperienced teams, it was great to see our hard work pay off by being tournament champion of the Southern New York State Tournament,” Kyle said.

Quint Nigro, another 10th grader was pleased with the team’s results and talked about the how the team has accepted its new challenge. “Given that we hadn’t even anticipated going to states, the fact that we qualified for worlds is a very pleasant surprise, and a responsibility we are all taking very seriously.”

At least one of the team members is not only committed to the team, he’s confident of their future. Tenth grader Brandon Escobar says “Riverhead is part of the world’s code, and we’ll medal our way to the top!”

As for Ferland, he says he is “incredibly fortunate to have the level of school support that I have been given.”