LPCSD robotics club competes at state competition

From left, Lake Placid High School Robolympians Jillian Kern, Gabriel Guerrero and Robert Bowen transport their team’s robot at the FIRST New York Tech Valley Regional Robotics Competition in Albany. (Provided photo — Margaret Kern)

LAKE PLACID — Tucked away in a quiet hallway on the ground floor of Lake Placid Middle/High School, the Robolympians robotics club meets to prepare for competitions. Though the team consists of less than 10 students, a few weekends ago, they traveled to Albany to the FIRST New York Tech Valley Regional Robotics Competition, where they placed 23rd of 50 schools, almost 20 places higher than last year.

“We did pretty good, so I was pretty happy with how this year turned out,” said team captain Robert Bowen, a junior at LPMHS. He has been a member of the robotics club since grade 9.

In January, the team receives a video from the competition organizers with their assignment for the competition. They get about two months to build a robot that will perform the task shown in the video. This year, it was a hybrid ring-toss and basketball game.

“We had to pick up rings or receive rings from a certain area and score them inside of this … basketball hoop, but the top is closed off and the bottom’s more widened out,” Bowen said.

Along with the video, the team also receives a rulebook. Members of the team have different jobs; Bowen was a member of the drive team, which operated the robot. Gabriel Guerrero, a senior, was the team coder and Jillian Kern, a junior, was the team’s safety captain. Kern aspires to take over as coder after Guerrero graduates, though both of them said coding has a big learning curve — last year, Guerrero helped with design.

“I was being the coder for the moment,” Guerrero said. “I didn’t know a lot about Java and the codes. It was something new for me.”

The team faced some challenges this season as they prepared for the March competition, between a tight budget, the departure of their faculty adviser and some malfunctioning robot parts.

“We didn’t do too good in a couple months. We lack funding. It’s expensive to get into it,” Bowen said.

The team ended up using a robot gifted to them by Northwood School’s robotics team, which the Robolympians modified to fit their needs.

Though they had a rocky road to the competition, once they got there, they did better than they had in previous years, Kern said. This was her first competition, and she said it was a lot to take in for a first-timer.

“It was definitely overwhelming, going into the pit for the first time, having all the practice matches and having people work on the robot every time we’d come back,” she said.

The weather didn’t cooperate with the team, either — they got stuck in Albany for an extra day due to last weekend’s snowstorm, making for an extra adventure for the students.

Bowen said that he’s eager for the team to become more competitive and would love to have more resources for the competition.

“We need more community cooperation. So, we need some more people in robotics club, but it’s hard because it’s such a small school,” he said. “We also need some more funding.”

After the competition, the club’s bank account is empty, Bowen said. It costs between $5,000 and $6,000 just to enter the competition, and there are additional costs for lodging and meals while the students travel to Albany. The parts for the robots can add up quickly, too.

“Even the smallest motor controller can cost $50. It gets really expensive really quickly,” Bowen said.

Guerrero said that some of the top schools invest upwards of $10,000 into their robots.

“Every mechanism for the robot is expensive,” he said.

Kern hopes that the team can gather some sponsors from around the community to support their efforts. Next year, she wants to get good enough at coding to have the robot operate autonomously, without the students driving it.

Bowen, who wants to become a technology teacher after he graduates, said that he’s thankful for the opportunities the robotics team provides.

“I’m honestly just grateful I can even be in a program like this,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for so long and it’s always been so fun, and I hope I can do it next year if we can secure more funding.”

While Bowen and Kern will keep the team going next year, Guerrero will graduate in June. He hopes to attend college for robotics, game design or cybersecurity.

“I like technology. My life has been technology,” he said.

The robotics club is a great way to meet new people and learn more about the world, Kern said.

“It’s just one big community. The competition being international just adds culture to it. It’s amazing,” she said.

Bowen agreed.

“I think it’s interesting how so many people in our robotics club come from underprivileged households and are still able to experience such a great thing, like the opportunities this gives,” he said. “We have our ups and downs sometimes … but when it comes to robotics, we’re kind of like a family.”

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