Whiffle balls rolled, the crowd cheered and the competitors were some of the toughest in the state. But this competition, held February 15 in the Raritan Valley Community College gymnasium, was different from others hosted there: the competitors were not human.
The 2015 NJ-FTC (FIRST Tech Challenge) Southern N.J. Meet Championship was the first large scale robotics competition to be hosted by RVCC. Twenty-four teams of students in grades 7-12 competed to qualify for the state championship which was held at New Jersey Institute of Technology on March 8.
Dean Kamen, the founder of FTC, describes robotics as a “sport for the mind.”
FTC challenges work like this: Teams of students design, build and program robots to compete in sports-like competitions. During matches, teams are paired into two alliances, red and blue, that vie against one another in pursuit of points.
At this event, teams scored points each time their robots picked up whiffle balls and dropped them into cylinders. Robots are required to be 18 x 18 x18 inches, and the playing field is 12 x 12 feet.
“It’s the first time we’ve seen most of these teams,” said a senior from Moorestown Prep. “We’re just looking to do well and go to states. But the thing with robotics is it’s all about working together.”
This ethos of teamwork, respect and kindness—called “gracious professionalism”—carried over into the finals, where teams knocked out of competition cheered on the two remaining alliances.
The Red Alliance consisted of team 7488, “Vending Machine,” from Suffern, N.Y. and team 237, “MFS Hawks,” from Moorestown, N.J. The Blue Alliance consisted of team 609, “Cougars,” from Somerset, N.J. and team 8816, “22nd Century Robotics,” from Mountain Lakes, N.J.
After three rounds, the Red Alliance was declared the winner.
“It’s really nice to see our work finally pay off,” said a student from MFS Hawks. “We’ve been working since September on this robot, and it’s great to finally move on to states.”
RVCC President Michael McDonough said in his introductory speech, “I can’t stress enough how important it is that we inspire our students to pursue careers in math and science. These students are going to be the next leaders in American science and engineering. It's extremely important that we support this type of learning. I’m simply in awe of the type of work these students do.”
One senior from Oratory Prep said, “I learned a lot about programming software, teamwork, soldering and how to work with all different types of materials. It’s simpler than people think. Anyone can do it and it’s a ton of fun!”
The future of robotics at RVCC
Vandana Nadkarni, one of the competition’s organizers and an Associate Professor of Art History at RVCC, said she was delighted with how the event turned out. She not only wants to make this an annual event at RVCC but wants to create an interdisciplinary robotics curriculum at the college.
Nadkarni said this would require collaboration among the VAPA department for designing animation, the engineering department for CAD design and the computer science department for software design.
“Personally, I think we should call it STEAM instead of STEM: science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics,” Nadkarni said.
Nadkarni has judged high school robotics competitions for seven years. When she was first asked to judge a competition, Nadkarni said, she was uncertain because her career has nothing to do with science or engineering. But she gave it a shot and found the energy at the competition to be “fantastic.”
Nadkarni said she has seen robotics students develop “incredible self-confidence, business plans and fundraising skills.” She also said students learn how to write business letters and work as a team.
“I think a lot of people that do the program move on to engineering, science and math careers,” said Andrew Rosenbach, a graduate from Moorestown Prep who attended the competition. “I’m kind of an anomaly in that I’m studying to be a food scientist so I like coming back to show that those aren’t the only fields people can get into with this program. “
The Engineering Club at RVCC has mentored robotics teams in the area for two years. One RVCC student who mentored at Bound Brook High School received an internship at Ethicon, one of the sponsors for the school. Nadkarni said the area around RVCC is one of the densest for robotics teams in the country.
Featured image caption: Competitors at the 2015 NJ-FTC Southern N.J. Meet Championship. Photo by Tom Kaspereen.