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New Jersey robots get competitive at Columbia High School

Photos by Julia Verderosa

“Are you ready to RRRROOOOOBOT?!”

Mayor Vic DeLuca gets the day started with Deputy Mayor Frank McGehee (left) and CHS Interim Principal Kalisha Morgan (right).

Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca is shouting into a microphone and bouncing on his toes along with Deputy Mayor McGehee as they open ceremonies at the FIRST Tech Challenge State Robotics Tournament, hosted by Columbia High School on March 10th.

It’s not often you get to see township officials this exuberant. But here they are in the Columbia High School gym with Interim Principal Kalisha Morgan, in front of hundreds of excited robotics students from all over New Jersey.

The bleachers are packed to capacity with students, teachers, parents and even corporate observers watching the action in the center of the gym. They could be mistaken for a crowd at a big sporting event until you notice how many of them are wearing safety goggles.

Sophomore team (left to right): Evan Ragone, Wesley Sappington and Thomas Culhane with their robot.

CHS is well represented here with three teams competing for the state championship and a chance to go to the FIRST World Championship in Detroit later this year.

This year’s task is to build a robot that can pick up yellow cubes and white Wiffle-type balls, sort the objects, carry them over to the center dais in the competition area, lift them 30 inches into the air, and drop them into the correct tube. It seems simple until you imagine having to build a machine that can do all of this. From scratch.

Lucky for us, we have four teams at CHS working on this problem. Three of them made it to this FIRST Tech State Tournament this year.

“It took about a month of hard work,” says CHS senior Rock Huebner. He shows an interested crowd his team’s robot, which looks like a giant cube-shaped cordless vacuum cleaner. It has a spinning dowel at the bottom that sweeps the objects into the main compartment, where they are sorted, and sent up a ladder-like structure that will eventually drop the objects into the proper tube. To give it a little personality, it has lights that change color across the bottom.

Even the uninitiated can see it’s an impressive robot by the envious looks it gets from other teams.

Huebner is on team 7959, with classmates Christina Wright, Mary Arevalo, Robi Huq, and Danielle Howell. The team has made it to the state tournament for the past four years. The junior and sophomore teams from CHS are also here with equally impressive robots to complete the same task.

With all this effort students put into their projects, it’s surprising you don’t hear more about the robotics teams. But they are not new to CHS.

Faculty sponsor Alan Tumolillo just before his teams compete.

“We had our first robotics team in the 2010-2011 school year,” says Allan Tumolillo, CHS science teacher and the faculty sponsor for the Robotics Club. “Our first team went to the state championship, then the world championship in Saint Louis, and won second place. It is still the best record for a rookie team.”

Since then CHS robotics teams have been to every state championship, won the coveted INSPIRE award in 2014, and gone back to the world championship in 2017.

Despite the meteoric success of the CHS Robotics Club, it does not receive any funds from the school district, and was only recently assigned a room at CHS in which to meet and build.

“The entrance fee for each team is $275,” says one parent. “Most of the robots have at least eight motors, which cost $30 a piece.” Some parents estimate the teams have to fundraise thousands of dollars just to purchase the parts they need to build their robots. Once the robots are built, the students need to travel to the competitions. The costs add up.

“We have been lucky enough to get grants from the Achieve Foundation and CHS Cougar Boosters, but there is still a significant fundraising gap,” says Tumolillo.

The success of the Robotics Club inspired the Achieve Foundation to sponsor Maker Madness each spring to bring the spirit of creating technology to our community.

This robot competitor is ready to grab and sort.

Says FIRST Tech Challenge representative Pat Frascella, “My favorite part of this competition is watching the kids grow. I see them come in as [high school] freshmen and by the time they are seniors they have learned so much. They are all experts at ‘gracious professionalism,’ which focuses not on winning and losing but on the fact we all achieve something.”

And Frascella isn’t the only one impressed with how much the participants are learning. Principal Morgan hopes to incorporate a robotics class into the high school curriculum. “Robotics is the future. I don’t want students to have to choose between sports and robotics. If they have a passion for it, they should be able to do it.” It may take some time before this idea is brought to fruition, however.

As Mr. Tumolillo is quick to add, “If students are involved in sports and want to do robotics too, we can work around their schedule. And it doesn’t matter how much skill you have. We will teach you.”

At the end of the tournament, despite a season of numerous awards for all three teams, none of the three CHS teams placed for a spot in the world championship. They may still get to go if their team gets a spot as a lottery winner. However, they did receive a well-deserved 2019 Rumblie for Outstanding Team: Most Engaged Throughout the Season as the state tournament came to a close.

Banner of achievement for CHS teams.

Says parent volunteer Charlotte Arevalo, “The outcome of this event highlights one of the wonderful things about the CHS Robotics Club – the fact that kids have the opportunity to learn how to fail. They learn how to face defeat, pick themselves up, and try again.” And don’t forget about the impressive knowledge base they acquired while having fun with their friends.

CHS teams may not have made it to the world championships this year, but they are definitely ready to robot now and for years to come.

Adrianna Donat is a freelance writer who writes in Maplewood, without the help of robots (for now).


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