Robotics Team Experiences Growth & Success, Preparing for State Competition

students all wearing maroon team shirts working on a robot on a table

MechaSpartans ‘gearing’ up to face steep competitors

The MechaSpartans, BH-BL’s high school robotics team, performed so well at a recent qualifying tournament that they are now headed to the state competition at Mohawk Valley Community College on March 3. Winning the Inspire Award, which recognizes a team for excelling in all competition areas and is also the top award, is what sealed the deal for the MechaSpartans to earn a seat at the state table.

But the team didn’t stop there. They also took second place as an alliance (a category based a second team’s robot that you partner with), earned second place for the Control Award that recognizes a team’s excellence in programming/java coding, and grabbed third place for the Think Award for the team’s design process as it translates in the engine portfolio.

“The team is extremely excited about this next opportunity,” says Travis Hadcock, BH-BL High School Robotics teacher and Robotics Club coach. “It’s really great to see how far they have come and what they’ve accomplished since the beginning of the year.”

students walking in a line high-fiving the opposing team

The MechaSpartans have their work cut out for them at the state-level event where they will compete against nearly 30 highly successful robotics teams. Hadcock says they’ve been fine-tuning their skills, running drills, and making tweaks here and there so they can iron out kinks for a smooth competition.

“In a way, we function like a sports team and we bond over the fact that we all really want our team to do well,” adds Mary Schwedatschenko, high school senior and president of the Robotics Club. “But the competition is not just about the robot, it’s also about what we do outside of robotics, how we treat others, and how well we work with others, that gives us all around success.”

Up for the challenge

In preparation for this year’s competitions, students spent the first half of the year strategizing, planning, and building the robot they would need for the challenge. They had to study the criteria and learn the obstacles their robot would need to perform. From there, they begin building. This phase requires computer programming/java coding knowledge as well as construction/assembly and materials knowledge. This year’s theme is entitled “The Arts” and requires arts-related tasks to be performed by the robots.

The first challenge is hands-free, meaning only java coding, explains Hadcock. The students had to program the robot to adapt to autonomous mode so it could sense and read items on the field (or stage, based on the theme) and be able to maneuver around obstacles to get to the next destination.

3 students looking at robotics field and operating robot with a remote

The second challenge is driver-controlled, meaning students control the robot using a video gaming-style remote to operate it. This included making the robot pick up discs from Center Stage, travel to Second Stage while holding the discs, then place them on an upright board, but in a strategic fashion. If the pieces are placed correctly, the end result is a mosaic art structure.

The last piece of the challenge, or the endgame, is that the robot must be able to launch a drone. But the drone must also land in a specific spot on the field/stage. The robot must then return to center stage where it needs to pull itself up and hang from a bar on Center Stage.

“In all my years doing FIRST Tech Robotics competitions, this is by far the most complicated challenge I have ever seen,” says Hadcock. “And the fact that the MechaSpartans did so well with it just proves how talented and dedicated these students are to the field of robotics.”

Growth is a trend

When Hadcock joined BH-BL three years ago his goal was not only to grow the program but to also help students tap into their potential by encouraging them to pursue other areas of robotics, hone their strengths, and improve their skills as a team. One of the first things Hadcock did was expand the robotics course to include ninth graders in an effort to keep the momentum continuing seamlessly.

“BH-BL does an incredible job introducing robotics to students at a young age with active, competitive teams at the elementary and middle school levels, so it only makes sense that students have the opportunity to continue this course of study as freshmen in the high school.”

Additionally, when students enroll in the robotics course, they automatically become a club member, or a MechaSpartan. But Hadcock doesn’t stop there. He wants students to see that robotics is far reaching. While students can and should remain MechaSpartans upon completion of the robotics course, he encourages them to look beyond that class to courses that will help them gain a deeper understanding of the field and improve their skills and knowledge. This includes such courses as computer science, DDP, engineering, metal technology, wood technology, java programming, etc.

“The more robust their knowledge of robotics becomes, the more they realize there are many skill sets that are needed for success in the field of robotics,” adds Hadcock. “There are team members who excel at java coding while there are others who excel at the build portion, and they learn that each skill set is wholly important to the entire project. A lesson that will go far when applied to a career in robotics or other STEM-related fields.”

In the past few years, the high school’s robotics program has experienced a growth spurt. What started as a seven-member team a few years ago has expanded to 23 members. In fact, Hadcock explained that a student joined the team just this week after seeing reels on Instagram of the MechaSpartans’ recent competition. They didn’t have anyone to run the club’s social media channel or do the necessary marketing work in a timely fashion, so she was a great addition to the team, adds Hadcock. (Follow them on Instagram: @BHBLRobotics)

“I’m super grateful this class is offered because I wouldn’t have found out about robotics without it,” adds Schwedatschenko, who plans to study Computer Engineering in college next year. “We get so many new members each year because of the class and it’s a unique aspect of our team that we all value greatly.”

In addition to growing the program, the High School Robotics Club has been working to better develop and support the FIRST Lego League teams at O’Rourke Middle School and the elementary schools. They do that by funding club registration and competition costs, but they also support those clubs on a more personal level, too. They mentor the middle school club team and develop demonstrations and activities for the elementary schools’ Science Nights. Additionally, assistant coach Jen Capello splits her time and shares her expertise with both the middle and high school robotics clubs.

District’s First Tech Fest, Feb. 15

In an effort to introduce even more BH-BL students to the different Science, Engineering and Technology opportunities at the high school, and beyond, the district is hosting its first Tech Fest on Thursday, Feb. 15 from 10 am to 2 pm. Much like Arts Fest where high school students showcase their work to their peers and staff, the technology and science departments will do the same with the MechaSpartans and the middle school club hosting demonstrations, Science Research students showcasing their award-winning work, engineering displays and more. There will also be college representatives, business and STEM-based companies on hand to show students how they can explore STEM and robotics-related fields after high school.

“Tech Fest is a celebration of technology in our community,” says Schwedatschenko who is one of the Fest’s main organizers. “Students will be able to interact with the booths in their passing periods and teachers will have the option to bring students down during class. The goal of TechFest is to usher more and more people into the technology classes  and explore careers that involve technology.”

Join the team

“My absolute favorite thing about the robotics team is the connections that I have built with the other people on our team,” adds Schwedatschenko. “Over the past three years, I have made invaluable friendships with people I would have never talked to outside of robotics. Additionally, I’ve introduced a number of people to the team. People think that they can’t join after we’re done competing, but anytime is a great time to join because we are always doing things!”

The team is made of up students of all age ranges, including President Mary Schwedatschenko (Senior), Vice President Parker Shafer (Junior), 2nd Vice President Ben Draves (Junior), Treasurer Bethany Bearce (Junior), Secretary Ashton Lovelace (Freshman), Matt Cozzolino (Senior), Brayden Doherty (Sophomore), Vincent Draves (Junior), Dillon Dunbar (Freshman), Evan Ellsworth (Senior), Matt Fox (Senior) Isaac Heider (Freshman), Aaron Kenneally (Senior) Nick Lagitch (Senior), Owen Lampo (Sophomore), Clara Leone (Junior), Alyssa North (Junior), Alessandra Rispole (Sophomore), Angelina Rose (Freshman), Jaxson Soria (Freshman), Dexter Stapley (Sophomore), Ryan Streeter (Senior), Josh Walton (Freshman), and Ryan Yahoudy (Freshman).