Feature stories

Revved up for robotics

Students rise to the challenge as Queens school restarts program

The chassis of the robot begins to take shape under the watchful eye of teacher

The chassis of the robot begins to take shape under the watchful eye of teacher Jessie Roeder (at head of work bench) at John Adams HS in Queens.

Teacher and mentor Jonathan Norman brainstorms with team members about what part

Teacher and mentor Jonathan Norman brainstorms with team members about what parts they need.

Team organizers Olajide Odesanya (left) and Christopher DeLuca (center) work on

Team organizers Olajide Odesanya (left) and Christopher DeLuca (center) work on the main board of the robot.

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Drills and saws create a cacophony that echoes into the hallways, and there’s a whiff of ozone and burning plastic in the air. Groups of students work feverishly, hot-gluing parts, splicing wires and programming in a room strewn with tools, pieces of scrap metal and electronic parts. But in just two short months, everything will come together to form one remote-controlled robot, ready for international competition.

Welcome to the inner sanctum of the rebooted robotics team at John Adams HS in Ozone Park, Queens, active for the first time since 2013 thanks to a group of intrepid students led by seniors Olajide Odesanya and Christopher DeLuca.

“I started asking around school, how do we get a club started?” Odesanya said. Learning they would need 10 or more members and a mentor, he thought, “No problem. I’m really motivated. I’m gonna get that done.”

Jonathan Norman, an earth science and computer studies teacher new to the school, recognized the intense student interest and stepped up to be that mentor.

“These students are very goal-oriented when they’re in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics),” Norman said.

The students’ goal: To build a programmable robot for the 2017 FIRST Robotics Competition.

The theme of this year’s challenge was STEAMWORKS, inspired by a time when steam power and hot-air balloons were at the forefront of technology. Teams were tasked with building robots that could pick up wiffle balls, symbolizing fuel to create steam pressure for hot-air balloons or “airships”; throw those balls into a hoop, symbolizing a boiler; then pick up gears and bring them to the airship; and, finally, grab a rope and climb several feet up and onto the airship. Teams would collect points along the way.

For the first 15 seconds of the match, the robots must operate autonomously. For the next two minutes and 15 seconds, they are controlled remotely by student drivers.

With just 60 days between the unveiling of the game and the start of competition, the students broke into teams.

“You have to be really dedicated, you have to set your goals, you have to know what you want to achieve every day,” said Odesanya.

Wiffle ball “fuel” stations surround the playing field at Rockland Community ColWiffle ball “fuel” stations surround the playing field at Rockland Community College, where John Adams’ robot moves toward an “airship.”

One February afternoon, one group was fleshing out ideas for the robot’s frame and chassis, while other students worked on wiring or programming. Their conversations ranged from determining the torque and horsepower needed to complete the various tasks, to gear ratios and coding in Python, Java and HTML.

By design, everything in the competition is hands-on and student-driven, and everyone has a job to do.

A lot of teamwork goes into the process, Norman said. “It takes many different hands to make this all work.”

In early March, the team traveled to Rockland Community College in Suffern, N.Y., for FIRST’s Hudson Valley Regional. Members set up on Pit Row alongside teams from across the country and from cities all over the world, including London, Istanbul and Mumbai, India. Many were veteran teams with sophisticated portable workshops and banners from corporate sponsors. The John Adams team was unfazed.

The students put the finishing touches on their robot, survived inspections and made trial runs. Then they battled multiple opponents, finishing 28th in a field of 48.

It was a respectable finish for their rookie effort, DeLuca said, and a “fun experience that, honestly, I don’t know if I could live without.”

Norman said his main expectation “was that they learn how to work and play together because they haven’t done it before. It’s all been a learning experience and they are loving it.”

Teacher Jessie Roeder, another mentor, said, “We tell them to work hard so they can do great things when they get older, but it’s really hard to make that seem meaningful and real if you don’t show them things they can do now.”

For the students, though, “the future is here,” said Odesanya. “Robotic hands. Exoskeletons. In my room, I have an airplane, a drone, bots, everything. That’s all I’m about.”

Norman said STEM helps students think about careers, too. “Automation is taking a lot of jobs as robots do more and more human work, but someone has to be there to create these things, to design them, build them and fix them,” he said. “These skills will be absolutely essential.”

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