Wheatley club seeks money for robot wars

The Island Now

The Wheatley School’s “most demanding club” needs more money to help it compete in robot battles with schools around Long Island and the country, its members said last week.

Wheatley’s robotics club asked the East Williston school board last Wednesday for a $5,000 funding increase to send the club and its made-from-scratch robot to a second competition each year, saying it would give students more practice with the robot and more experience in the increasingly important field of engineering.

“No good skill stops at the classroom,” said Jake Gilbert, a senior who is the club’s president.

Since 2009, the club, open to ninth- through 12th-graders, has competed every spring in the FIRST Robotics Competition at Hofstra University, a regional contest that draws about 50 teams, club members said.

Each FIRST competiton is centered around a challenge or game. This year’s was called “Stronghold,” in which alliances of three teams worked to damage and capture the opposing alliance’s “tower” by throwing balls, or “boulders,” into it.

After learning the challenge and rules in January, the club must build a robot from the ground up in six weeks before it is packed up until the competition, according to club members and Patrick Hurley,  the club’s adviser.

The club brought this year’s robot to the school board meeting. It moves on two treads, similar to conveyor belts, and shoots a ball through two spinning discs.

In those six weeks, dedicated club members work on the robot for three to five hours after school each day, even through midterm exams and on weekends, said Justin Parker, the club’s secretary.

The $5,000 the school district gives the club each year covers its registration fee for the Hofstra competition, but members must raise about $3,000 on their own for parts, Hurley said.

If the school board allocated another $5,000, they could attend a second competition at the Jacob Javits Center in New York City, giving them more practice with the robot and a better chance of making it to the national level, Hurley said. Wheatley’s team placed 47th at this year’s contest, he said.

It would also be a way for the district to further invest in science and engineering outside the classroom, Gilbert said.

“As the only club in the school fostering engineering skills and creating the Bill Gateses, Mark Zuckerbergs and Elon Musks of the future, we are greatly underfunded,” said Gilbert, referring to science and technology trailblazers.

The district has worked to expand science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, in classrooms with a curriculum called Project Lead the Way, and has also established robotics teams at its elementary and middle school, Superintendent Elaine Kanas said.

Participating in a second competition could help Wheatley form a network with other North Shore robotics teams, strengthening alliances and making the club more competitive, said the school principal, Sean Feeney.

The school board must get a formal request from an administrator before it can increase the club’s funding for next year, said  board President Mark Kamberg.

“But that being said, certainly we recognize the work and effort you guys are doing here,” he said.

By Noah Manskar

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The Island Now

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