“We realized we needed a huge improvement on our robot,” said Cabrera, who captains the school's robotics team, during a recent sit down at Weehawken High School. “So the week in between the first and second competition, we spent that whole week in the S.T.E.A.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math) room, completely redesigning our robot.”
The work paid off, as the team placed eighth out of 36 teams at that second competition on Jan. 27, and then 18th out of 64th in their final competition this season on Feb. 4. Not too shabby for a team with only two years experience under its belt.
How far they've come
“Considering the program is only two years old, whereas some of these schools have had robotics programs for five or more years, I think we did pretty well,” Cabrera said of the team's progress this season.
WHS S.T.E.A.M. teacher Paul Bannon believes the team would've done even better if not for a mishap during one of the competitions.
“The field actually broke during one of the matches,” he revealed. “So we didn't get to play our fifth match, so we could've potentially placed higher. We won three out of four matches.”
Still, “The top ten place is something we're really proud of,” Bannon said. He said the team wants to enter at least six to 10 competitions next season.
Vex Robotics competitions task teams of students with designing and building robots to play against other teams in game-based challenges.
The program makes heavy use of S.T.E.A.M concepts, which falls in line with Weehawken's curriculum since Superintendent Dr. Robert Zywicki took over in 2016.
In recent competitions, the team’s objective was to lift up certain cones on a field with their robots, and bring them to corners on the field. Each corner has two bars, with a second bar bigger than the other.
If the robots can bring the cones past the larger bar, that awards 20 points. Bringing the cones past the first bar brings 10 points. Teams also receive additional points for stacking cones on top of each other. The competition's larger blue cones also offer more points than smaller, yellow cones.
“I'm very proud that we went from having no robotics program two years ago to now competing at the highest levels.” – Robert Zywicki
The team's process for creating each robot begins with creating what is called “drivetrain,” which refers to components in a vehicle powering its driving wheels.
“Moving is obviously the most important part of the robot, and once you have the drivetrain, you just build on top of that and then you put your manipulators,” Cabrera said. “Manipulators” refers to the parts of the robot that can interact with the environment, specifically the field cones. Teams use tools such as allen keys and wrenches while building the robots. They also use batteries and motors to power them.
Vex provides specific controllers to each team for the robots, which resemble Xbox video game controllers.
Teams who participate in Vex Robotics competitions are also only allowed to use Vex’s materials.
“Our first model, we just imagined it, and then made it just based off the objective at hand,” Cabrera said of making their machine.
Motioning to their most recently created robot, he added, “This one, we took a lot of influence from the other robots we saw in the first competition.”
The first robot focused more on picking up the smaller cones, the team says. The second robot, however, focused on picking up the larger cones. The team added rubber bands for additional support on the robot's hooks, to handle the bigger cones.
Pettiness causes losses
Cohesiveness between teams can either make or break them, WHS robotics says. That was one of the biggest lessons they leaned this season.
“The teamwork point of it is important,” Cabrera said. “Because if we don't really communicate with our allies, then we won't win. We had a few matches where our teammates really didn't want to work with us, and we lost those matches when we should've won them.”
“There are some teams that make some really big robots and they look down on smaller robots, simply because they're smaller,” Bannon said. “Not because of how they perform or anything.”
But on the flipside, “In our first competition, the other team had two monster robots,” Cabrera said. “And we won, just through teamwork. And we completely destroyed them.”
Zywicki was elated with the team's rapid success. “I'm very proud that we went from having no robotics program two years ago to now competing at the highest levels,” Zywicki said. “It's a tribute to Mr. Bannon, and most importantly, our kids. This is something they're really committed to and it's going to set them up for future success.”
Hannington Dia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org