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Robo Chiefs Take Prize

More than 100 students from 19 schools on Long Island squared off for nine hours at Adelphi University for the VEX Robotics Competition. The Massapequa High School robotics club called “Robo Chiefs” crushed the competition, winning first place and the Excellence award — the highest award presented in the VEX Robotics competition.

The students participating in the competition are part of an after school robotics program lead by teacher Brian Vanek. The winning team consisted of Christina DeLuca, the driver who won first place in an eliminating round in East Rockaway; Shane Murphy, the driver in this competitio; and Sarah Goklevent, Roberto DePietro, Richard Gordonson, Adam Carrero and Liam Byrnes-Cunningham. Winning this competition now advances the club up to the state championship March 8.

Dan LaRochelle, the regional manager in charge of the teams in New England and New York explained how the competition first started.

“This got started with grants from Northrop Grumman and NASA and we have over 50 teams in the greater New York area mostly concentrated in Long Island,” said LaRochelle. “The VEX robotics competition is one of our flagship programs. We have over 10,000 teams from 27 countries and we are the fastest growing robotics competition in the world.”

The purpose of the competition is to promote and excite students about STEM education; Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, which is one of the fastest growing sectors of the economy. In New York there are 1.7 STEM jobs for every person looking for work, and the state is projected to have nearly a half-million STEM jobs by 2018, the third highest in the country.

“There is plenty for them to learn, but the main thing is that they can do STEM education and not be afraid of failure,” said LaRochelle. “Our current educational system teaches kids not to fail, but the only way you learn is from your failures. We are trying to let them compete with robots, have some fun, get a positive experience and confidence in themselves that they can do this kind of thing and maybe pursue a career in it. I don’t expect everyone here to be engineers, but I do expect them to be professional problem solvers.”

Technology education teacher and the coach of the team, Brian Vanek, taught robotics for seven years at Berner Middle School and now teaches the course at the high school. Vanek has the students do everything with the robots, but keeps them on track by using their time effectively.

“What I try to do mostly is to make sure they are working together, they are not fighting each other, and they are collaborating together,” he said. “They are learning all of the engineering with the robots, they are learning the programming, problem solving, collaboration, team work, higher level thinking skills and strategy, like chess. I really try to focus on this more so than winning.”

During the competition, one student drives the robot, one coaches the driver and another records all the team’s points for use in choosing alliances. Other students scout the teams at the competition to find out what strengths their robots have and how they complement their robot’s strengths.

Susan Thompson, Chairperson for career and technology education hopes more women will enter this field.

“What I really love about our curriculum in Massapequa is that in 7th and 8th grade every student gets technology education and there are units on robots,” said Thompson. “This gives people like Christina [DeLuca] the opportunity to see what robots can do and how they can program them and build them in order to accomplish a goal. I really feel there are not enough women going into the engineering field and that is why I was really proud last weekend when Christina was on our team and she was one of the drivers and she did a great job. Our team won first place as well as the design award.”

Vanek agreed with Thompson that there are challenges getting more women interested in the program.

“Some of the biggest challenges are the stereotype that it is a male field,” he said.

LaRochelle feels that the solution to the problem is to get to the girls earlier in the education process.

“We started a brand new elementary and middle school program called VEX IQ. By the time we get to girls at this point, they are all ready broken. They have already been told by teachers and society what they can and can’t do,” he said. “We are trying to grab girls at a very young age and have them have a positive experience so they can really believe in themselves.”