By Cate Douglass
Few clubs at Hightstown High School use imagination and innovation to win competitions and break state records. Even fewer is the number of clubs at HHS that incorporate academic course content, problem solving skills and genuine enthusiasm to compete on a national platform. The Robotics Club is one of the few.
In a competition hosted by Hightstown High School on Jan. 20, the FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) team of Hightstown High placed first overall against schools from New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware, a feat that has not yet been done before in the history of the FCT team.
“Right before we won, we felt really pumped for the upcoming match because we had just won against the first seeded team,” Hightstown High School senior Tristan Duenas said. “After beating them, we knew that we had passed a majority of the hurtles in front of us. We viewed our last match as a chance to go out with a bang, and show everyone at the competition and in New Jersey our potential. We were no longer as nervous, and instead felt a sense of exhilaration where nothing could stop us.”
The competition this year, established by FIRST, For Inspiration and Recognition in Science and technology, challenged FCT teams to create a robot that could place rings on racks of different levels, according to Hightstown High School senior Chris Bruno.
“There was a little catch. The top level is at 45 inches, but the robot every year has to fit into an 18 by 18 by 18 inch cube,” Bruno said. “It can be smaller but it at least had to get into that size cube. That’s what made this challenge particularly challenging.”
Despite the difficult task, Hightstown’s FTC team was able to not only win the entire competition, but to walk away with an Innovation Award and a state record for 355 points in a match, according to Hightstown High School junior Dan Cohen; the robot, operated by Duenas, Bruno and Cohen, did a great deal more than just perform.
“Our robot had one of the greatest designs that consistently performed,” Cohen said. “The criteria was to have a creative and innovative design but that it also worked well. It can’t just look good on paper, it has to be able to work.”
Bruno said that the team fell just short of winning the Inspire award, another honor given only to the top teams of the competition.
“We were second place for the Inspire Award, which means that you have not just a great robot but that your team does outreach,” Bruno said. “[The team needs to do] something that really makes FIRST proud.”
“FIRST isn’t always all about competition. While this is really awesome, we want to teach other students about science and technology and business relation skills.”
While building and improving upon the robot has been priority, Bruno said that the Robotics club is doing a lot more this year to benefit the community in the ways that FIRST is looking for.
“We have a toy drive and we also just adopted the Children’s Hospital of Princeton as our local charity so a lot of the stuff we do now is going to benefit them,” Bruno said. “I’m working on trying to have a demo for them, [which would be a way] to teach them a little bit about what we do. We may even bring the robot, and maybe let them drive it.”
Closer to home, the FTC team said that they want to reach out to the middle school in order to give the program a head start in the future.
“I’m working right now on arranging some of the non-technical things to get to that high goal of inspire,” Bruno said. “One of the things that we thought to include would be to go to the middle school with the robot and run a workshop for eight graders that will be coming up into the program next year. [We want to] get them started earlier than we ever did so in September, we can hit the ground running.”
The secret to the FTC teams recent success is passion – Cohen said that Robotics is a place where he can express himself in the same way that artists paint pictures or athletes play sports.
“I guess some people create things through art [or writing or music]. This is our version of that,” Cohen said. “We love to build robots, to figure out the best way for something to perform such a difficult task.”
More importantly is it a place where Duenas said he can relate the information he learns in school to what he is doing in the club.
“I like being able to apply what we learn in class in too. Sometimes in school, it gets boring,” Duenas said. “You kind of sit there in math class and ask yourself, ‘where can I apply this information outside the classroom?’. I feel like that comes into play a lot more here.”
For Hightstown High School senior Kevit Modh, the enjoyment derives from the natural instinct of competition.
“Not only all of that technical stuff, but it’s a competition at the end of the day,” Modh said. “It’s just like any other sport, it’s a lot of fun to compete.”
The equipment does not hurt either – Bruno said that the FTC team recently added a new sponsor, TRUMPF photonics, which gives them an extra edge that many other teams do not have.
“TRUMPF kindly donated the money with which we used to purchase a practice field,” Bruno said. “If we’re going to be a competitive team, we’re going to need a practice field. Other teams do not have a field to work on. We can drive and test on [this field] to make sure everything is works well.”
With the addition of sponsors, equipment and a newfound motivation to succeed, the FTC said that their new goal is to perform well in the State competition on Feb. 9 as well as to qualify for the World Championships in St. Louis. Hightstown High School computer science teacher and Robotics adviser Chris Gregory has nothing but high hopes for his team in the next competition.
“At the state competition, the field of teams are split into two divisions - Parkway and Turnpike,” Gregory said. “We won't know which division we're in until the day of the event, but I would like to see us be at least in the division finals. Winning the event and qualifying for the Championship Event in St. Louis would just be icing on the cake.”
The FTC teams continuing effort to better the robot in preparation for States is what Gregory believes will help the team succeed in the State competition.
“Our robot is incredibly capable this year, and that's really due to the dedication of the students on the team -- they even got together and worked over winter break on the machine,” Gregory said. “Even after winning Snowday Showdown, they found new ways to make the machine even better for the state championship. They added an articulating claw to easily adapt to the height challenge of the game. The lack of complacency and desire to always do more makes them very competitive, and I think it's going to pay off at the state tournament.”