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Robo Raiders on the Rise

Robo RaidersThe Robo Raiders at the first Tech Challenge.There’s a new winning Raiders team in town. Scarsdale High School’s robotics team, the Robo Raiders, just had its best-ever showing in the qualifying round of the FIRST Tech Challenge, an international competition that tests teams to design, build, program, and operate robots to compete head-to-head.

Just three years after the group was formed, it’s headed to FIRST’s regional championship for the second year in a row, after its great showing in the “Rover Ruckus” held two weeks ago. The regionals will be held at Pace University this from the Hudson Valley competing. The winners will advance to the FIRST Championship in Houston this April.

The team has designed, built, and programmed their robot to compete in an alliance format against other teams. Members have used a specialized robot kit, powered by Android technology and programmed using Java, and need to develop strategy and build robots based on sound engineering principles.

Brian McDonald, who teaches STEAM classes at SHS with Lisa Yokana, serves as the Robo Raiders’ coach. He RobotThe robotics teams robot.explained that hard work and a little luck have led the team this far. “The first competition this year was in Peekskill. We signed up late and… didn’t have a running robot until the day before the competition.” Team captain, Teckhua Chiang, added, “There were many mechanical issues that we didn’t have the chance to solve and we were working up until the last minute.”

Needless to say the team had a less than stellar performance and were unable to advance after Peekskill. Fortunately, however, the group was able to enter another qualifying round in Yonkers when another team relinquished its spot. And, the Robot Raiders made the most of the opportunity.

“After their failed attempt… at the Peekskill competition, the team knew the improvements they needed to make and did what they needed to do within two weeks to make it happen,” said McDonald. He added that one student was working on programming issues through the night on the Friday before the competition.

Given a second shot, not only did the Robo Raiders qualify; they dominated in a field of 23 teams. Last year, the team walked away with one award in the qualifying round before being eliminated in regionals. This time, it won three awards and placed second in another category, and shows no sign of stopping.

The group earned the “Rockwell Collins Innovate Award” for its ability to “not only think outside the box, but have the ingenuity and inventiveness to make its designs come to life;” and was named a “Final Alliance Team, ” placing second overall in the day’s events.

They also earned a second place showing for the “Inspire Award,” the highest award a team can receive, given to the group that embodies the FIRST program and serves as a role model for others. Last, the team was a runner-up for the “Control” award, which recognizes the team that best uses sensors and software to enhance its robot’s functionality.

RoboticsDesignLabAt works in the Design Lab.A unique feature of the FIRST Tech Challenge is that teams earn rewards not only for their performances in competition, but also for “community outreach efforts, design and other real-world accomplishments.” According to FIRST, “The competitions are the result of focused brainstorming, dedicated mentoring, project timelines and teamwork.”

The Robo Raiders now are working hard to maintain momentum. Mc Donald reports that, since the beginning of the year, team members have been spending hours each day troubleshooting and refining systems. “(After the qualifier) I was ready to tell them that we have to up our game (going into regionals), but I quickly realized they were ahead of me. They already were on top of the things that we need to improve… they had a full plan and were ready to go.”

He continued, “Other teams rely heavily on the mentors who they are working with. They need feedback and opinions of teachers, and sponsors, and engineering partners to help them build their robots. What’s impressive here is that I have not needed to play that role. I can’t take a lot of the credit because they go and seek those answers themselves. My main role has been … when things start to slow down, (to keep them on track).”

Chiang added, “We learned a lot from participating in our first regionals. It’s a completely different competition from the qualifier and we have to be ready this Sunday.”

Humble Beginnings
The Robo Raiders trace their roots to a group of half a dozen students who just wanted to build robots. However, three years ago, those students had either graduated or moved on to other activities. Chiang said, “I was really interested in starting a robotics team, so a group of my friends and I came together in our sophomore year to re-start the club… I was interested in building things, and working with my hands, as well as computer science and programming. Robotics is a great way to combine the two… and create a team as well, which is what I was looking forward to.”

Now, the team has “a steady 18 members,” according to McDonald., with other students pitching in from time to time. “Science Olympiad takes away a lot of students who would typically be a part of this sort of activity. However, a smaller group works better for us because it allows us to be more productive.”

While the team focuses on Sunday’s test, it also looks to continue expand its activities, complete new projects and participate in more competitions. Sponsors will play a crucial role in assuring the Robo Raiders ongoing growth; it costs hundreds of dollars to register for each competition alone – and funds are not provided by the school district.

According to the team’s outreach director, Courtney Guastafeste, “We are trying to get sponsors to help support us; it’s expensive to compete. We also need to buy build kits, and other things like shirts, and posters to reach out at school and in the local community to let them know this is a thing now… Our team members contribute some money themselves, but we still need a lot of assistance. “ Currently, Creative Engineering and the Digital Arts Experience help support the team’s efforts, but the Robo Raiders are seeking additional sponsorships and partnerships from both organizations and individuals throughout Westchester.

Why It Matters
We all know the benefits of participating in team sports. But, traditional sports aren’t for every student. The Robo Raiders, and teams like it, provide the same opportunities to learn teamwork, forge friendships, reinforce a sense of responsibility, collaborate in solving problems, experience the thrill of winning, and learn to deal with defeat. They also mold tomorrow’s problem solvers through hands-on experience.

And, speaking as a sports fan, I honestly can say that the Robo Raiders’ last competition had all the elements of a good ballgame or track meet – anticipation, excitement, uncertainty, and elation. The team is just as committed to success as any group of good athletes and deserves some boosters of its own.

For more information about the Robo Raiders or how you can help support the team, visit the Scarsdale Robotics webpage or contact Brian McDonald at bmcdonald@scarsdaleschools.org.

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