Bensalem’s Fightin’ Robotic Owls earn title of World Championship Semi-Finalists
By Samantha Bambino
When Bensalem High School’s Fightin’ Robotic Owls competed at the FIRST Robotics Mid-Atlantic District Championship at Lehigh University last year, things didn’t exactly go as planned.
“Everything that could break on the robot broke. We came in dead last and it was a huge disappointment for the team,” said mentor Virginia McKay, adding how the teens wanted to smash their creation like the scene in Office Space, where Peter, Samir and Michael destroy a printer out of frustration. “We wanted to forget that last year happened.”
Instead, Team 5401 took that major blow as a learning experience. Rather than throw in the towel (and take bats to their robot), the students worked tirelessly during the off-season to step up their game in terms of design and strategy.
They refused to have the same thing happen again.
On April 6, the Fightin’ Robotic Owls returned to Lehigh, and this time they finished fifth out of 128 teams, qualifying for the FIRST Robotics World Championships in Detroit, Michigan. From April 24–27, Bensalem’s robot, which boasted an intricate elevator, was put to the test on the Deep Space obstacle course, competing against more than 400 teams from 14 different countries, including Israel, Singapore, Chili, Spain, Norway and Canada.
After winning their division and advancing to a round robin finals tournament, the Owls finished with a 2–1–2 record and earned the title of World Championship Semi-Finalists.
“For those not all the way up to speed on the complex world of FIRST, but if you follow college basketball, we won our conference tournament (District Championship), got a bid to the NCAA Tournament (World Championships), and made the final four (Division Championships), and only narrowly missed the final two,” explained head coach Kevin McKay.
On the heels of this major accomplishment, The Times stopped by the Owls’ lab to chat with several members of the team, each of whom was still enjoying that victory high.
For senior Justin Nolle, who serves as the outreach coordinator, it was a thrill to see his beloved team perform so well at the World Championships. Though the Owls qualified in 2016 and 2017, the end result wasn’t as impressive.
“It’s really been incredible seeing the difference in how we were my freshman year going to Worlds for the first time ever, not knowing what was going on,” Nolle said. “Now, this is our third time and we did better than we ever had before. It’s been great.”
Ninth-grader Richard Vega, a pit member, shared a similar sentiment.
“What I loved was just being able to look back on how far we made it, seeing that last year at Districts at Lehigh, we came in dead last,” Vega said. “It really did hurt. But then being able to go to Worlds and beat a really competitive team to win the whole thing, it just completely changed how you look at things and it gave a really strong morale to the team. I’m just happy to be here and to be part of Team 5401.”
In the opinion of Ethan Whiting, a junior whose roles include drive coach and safety captain, the team’s performance at Worlds is serving as perfect motivation to not only return to Detroit in 2020, but to do even better when they get there.
“There’s a lot of hype because it’s like a sporting event. Even when I’m out on the field, I look up in the stands and everyone’s cheering,” Whiting said. “This changed all of our minds because after coming so close to winning the entire World Championships, I think a lot of our team is a lot more engaged and ready to tackle it again next year.”
Although their competition season is over, the Fightin’ Robotic Owls are busy planning for their upcoming free summer camp, which provides students in grades 7–9 with hands-on experience designing, building and programming robots, as well as experience with CADD and manufacturing. The camp takes place on Wednesday afternoons from June 19-Aug. 21 (except on holidays), and trains participants in the skills they’ll need when they join the team as a freshman.
In the meantime, the Owls are excitedly awaiting their official “World Championship Semi-Finalists” banner, which they’ll proudly hang in their lab for all to see.
Join the team on Thursday, May 23 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. in the Bensalem High School STEM Lab, 4319 Hulmeville Road, as it unveils the World Championship Semi-Finalist banner and showcases the K-12 robotics opportunities in the Bensalem Township School District.
For more information on the Fightin’ Robotic Owls, the summer camp, donating to the team and how to be a mentor, visit team5401.org ••
Samantha Bambino can be reached at email@example.com