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Robotics gaining in popularity at BCHS

Filed in Archive, BCHS, District, Student Spotlight by on April 3, 2019

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Students at Bethlehem Central High School are embracing robotics like never before, taking part in clubs and activities that are not only gaining in popularity but winning accolades.

A team from Bethlehem that got its start just this year has earned an invitation to put its engineering and design skills to the test against top teams from all over the world later this month, in Michigan, at the FIRST Robotics World Championship. The team won the regional FIRST Robotics competition, held locally at RPI, in March.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition in Science and Technology) is an organization providing innovative STEM programs that help students build self-confidence, knowledge, and life skills while motivating them to pursue opportunities in science, technology, and engineering.

With a grant it sought and won from NASA, and with help from community member Paul Wing, the 10-member Bethlehem FIRST Robotics Team designed and built a robot that could load and secure cargo as part of a fictional lunar landing. The robot had to navigate the simulated harsh weather conditions and uncertain terrain of outer space. The space-themed competition was chosen to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing.

FIRST team members include co-captains Nick Watson, Ben Eisenbraun, and Ben Goldberg as well as Annika Clarke, Gavin Creaser, Caitlin Dubin, Mason Kessler, Ryan Metcalf, James Walston and Andres Sevilla.

Working with adult mentors, the students had six weeks to design, build, program, and test their robots leading up to the three-day competition.

According to co-captain and founder Nick Watson, a BC sophomore, the team began preliminary work sharpening their skills in computer-aided design (CAD) and engineering last fall. However, the six-week robot build did not begin until January, he said, when FIRST provided teams with a base kit and instruction manual for getting started.

“The base kit gives us the basic essentials, however, any specialization that is done on the robot must be fabricated by the team,” said Watson. “The manual is 150 pages of rules, objectives, and specifications for the game. After reading through the manual, the team strategized to find a design so the robot could place cargo (in this case, kickballs) into cargo holders at various levels around the field and place hatch panels (frisbee-type discs) to secure the cargo.”

Point values were assigned to different objectives and obstructions the robot would have to overcome, Watson said.

With support from other area high school teams and from those who attended the competition, the Bethlehem team and its robot earned top scores, along with teams from Shaker High School and Shenendehowa. Read more about the FIRST Robotics regional competition here.

It was the camaraderie, Watson said, that first inspired him to want to put together a team after attending the competition in 2018.

“Unlike many sports, the environment at competitions is only competitive for about two minutes during each match. The other teams are extremely supportive and the environment is surreal,” said Watson, who said that assistance from both the Ballston Spa and the Albany High School robotics teams were integral to the success of the rookie BC team.

Watson said while team members are busy trying to raise the funds needed to get to Detroit for the Worlds competition later this month, the team hopes to expand participation in FIRST Robotics at Bethlehem next year and build a bridge between the FIRST team and the VEX Robotics team that has been active at the high school for two years.

The VEX Robotics team has also seen its share of success and has experienced an increase in interest and participation since it first launched at the high school in 2017-18.

VEX Robotics is a design and competition program, like FIRST, that is intended to provide students with hands-on discovery of science, technology, engineering and math and career exploration in STEM fields.

“We now have two teams and a total of 16 students who are actively involved in the school’s VEX Robotics Club. Both teams are young and yet we have seen tremendous skill growth since the beginning of the year,” said VEX Robotics faculty advisor Eric Fana. “We attended three competitions this year versus only one last year and our students spent countless hours since September preparing for these meets.”

Fana said grants from the Bethlehem Central Community Foundation (BCCF) and Bethlehem Opportunities Unlimited (BOU) allowed the team to purchase a game field this year. The game field allows the teams to program an autonomous robot, with the need for a driver input, and practice for the competitions.

Fana said each of the two teams found success at regional VEX competitions, including Team 12054A, which won the Judge’s Award in Granville, NY for excellent teamwork, robot design, and outreach efforts. Team A captain is Abi DeFranco. Team 12054B finished fourth out of 18 teams at the same competition in a Skills Challenge. Team B captain is Winston Slater.

Fana said while the competition season is over, the teams will be studying to learn new software and hardware in preparation for the 2019-20 competition season. He also said the team focuses on outreach during the off-season.

“We have had tremendous support from parents, from the district and from our mentors and sponsors,” said Fana. “We are always looking for additional support for our students and for this kind of hands-on STEM learning.”

Learn more about VEX Robotics at Bethlehem Central High School.

If you are interested in learning how to support the robotics teams at Bethlehem Central High School, please contact bcsdcommunications@bethlehemschools.org. High school students who are interested in getting involved in robotics in the 2019-20 school year should contact their school counselor.