Do the robot: Snyder-Girotti Elementary School Robotics Club holds first competition

It was a high stakes night at the Grundy Library.

Four groups of students were sitting on the floor in an activity room, huddled over a board with four pucks and surrounded by parents, teachers and community members.

“If this doesn’t work, I’ll have a nervous breakdown,” said one student, just before his team’s turn.

Later, another fervently whispered, “Wrong color, wrong color!” in the otherwise silent room.

“This is suspenseful,” said one parent during a break in the action.

It was also a first.

Last week, fifth- and sixth-grade students from Snyder-Girotti Elementary School gathered at the library for the first competition of the new Robotics Club. Sponsored by the Grundy Foundation’s Advisory and Oversight Committee, or AOC, the 21st Century Learning Center and chemical manufacturers Solvay and Arkema, the club held its first meeting on Oct. 4

Since then, the group’s 10 members met once a week for two-hour sessions at the library. They designed, built and programmed their own robots with the help of coordinator Joe Stallone and fellow volunteers Jesse Walker and Ronson Lamond. Each team had a mechanical designer, programmer and project manager.

For the competition, each wheeled robot would venture from a starting point, scoop up a plastic puck, each a different color, from one of the other teams and return to its base. To make it work, the kids had to program their robots to move certain distances, turn certain degrees, perform an action and then return.

Using a specialized computer program that let them assemble commands using blocks of code, they could also assign tasks like having the robot play music at certain times.

The entire process was new for the students, the school district and the library — even the pucks were custom made using the library’s new 3D printer.

“It’s been amazing to see the kids here each week, working out all these math problems on the whiteboard,” said Library Administrator Dana Barber.

At the competition, the students finally got to see all that work come to fruition.

It was a major accomplishment, even if things didn’t go perfectly.

After three rounds, with the students making program adjustments in between each, none of the teams got a puck all the way back to their base — although a few came breathtakingly close.

All in all, however, it was pretty good for everyone’s first try

“It’s kind of been play-it-by-ear, trying to figure out where the kids are and how they adjust, what they’re learning,” said Stallone. “Next time, it will be just as fun, but a bit more complex.”

The students were even more enthusiastic, even despite there being no clear-cut winner.

“Building the robots was the best part. I’ve been really interested in them forever,” said fifth-grader Liam Feeney. The competition itself, he said, was “tense” but fun. “I think next time it will be even better,” he said.

In fact, things improved even before the four judges — former borough police chief Arnold Porter, school superintendent Dr. Thomas Shaffer and Chris Woolhouse and Andrew Oreskovich from Solvay — made their decision. While they were tallying up points, students continued to make programming adjustments, and two teams managed to get the pucks to return properly.

One of those teams, comprising Jacob Walker and Isaac Ocasio, was the judge’s pick for the winner. However, after announcing the final decision, Shaffer stressed it was a close call and everyone had different first-place picks. He also encouraged all the students to stick with it.

“Computer sciences is the number one job in Pennsylvania right now. There are 17,000 new jobs, but our colleges graduate only around 2,700 a year,” he pointed out.
“This is a good field to stay in.”