Citywide robotics competition offers showcase, opportunity for Philly students [photos]


Last weekend, the Central High School gym in Philadelphia was filled with the usual sounds of balls falling, rolling and going into goals. But it wasn’t students doing the scoring — it was their robots.

Teams made last-minute adjustments to their robots during the annual citywide robotics championship, the Pennsylvania FIRST Tech Challenge. The international competition for seventh- through 12th-grade teams is put on by an organization known as For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology — FIRST.

“The mission of FIRST is to encourage students of all ages, K to 12, to learn STEM and get involved in science, technology, engineering, and math,” said Tom Zawislak, Pennsylvania FIRST Robotics chair and event organizer. “Not only for schooling and scholastic careers, but careers going forward.”

Seventeen schools from across the city participated, including Frankford, Olney Charter and Abraham Lincoln high schools.

It’s about more than competition, said Michael Johnson, physics teacher and robotics coach at Central High School.

“I have been working to bring the abstract physics classroom much more into the real world by putting those ideas into physical practice,” he said.

Teams worked since September to come up with ideas for robots to succeed in this year’s game, the Cascade Effect. Their objective was to get the most points by completing tasks: knock down a lever spilling wiffle balls and plastic golf balls; pick up the balls and place them into one of several goals; and move the goals around to designated spots.

Central freshman Viwing Zheng, who was first exposed to robotics in middle school, joined the team after a teacher encouraged her to do so.

“The experience is amazing because it was really different from my course as an eighth-grader,” she said. “Everyone takes the game really seriously, and we’re willing to work with each other at all times. So it was just a fun experience.”

Robots help lead the way toward STEM careers

Viwing is interested in the STEM fields as a potential career.

“I just feel like this competition that we’re hosting right now, it’s really important for people who want to get into STEM careers in the future. So I feel as though it’s, like, really highly encouraged,” she said.

Many of the event’s volunteers are former robotics club members, including Tom Wexler who announced the games.

“I started on a team as an eighth-grader and never looked back,” he said. “It wasn’t the same normal science fair. It wasn’t the football team. You had a chance to not only create something that was beautiful and elegant that was a machine, but you also had a chance to compete with it and work with other people and other schools and engineers you wouldn’t otherwise have a chance to.”

He now works in a STEM field as tech support for the Springfield Township School District.

Johnson, Central robotics coach, said about 90 percent of his team members go on to study STEM subjects in college. Many students said they were interested in pursuing STEM careers, including aerospace, computer and mechanical engineering.

Parent Robert Davis came out to support his daughter, Alexis, who goes to George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science.

“I love that she has an interest in electronics, engineering and computers, and this was a very good combination of the three,” he said. “She thoroughly enjoys it. She sometimes does this quicker than she does her homework.”

The sophomore said that she joined as an all-girls team started this year.

“When they said they had an all-girls team, I thought, ‘Oh why not? Be a rookie team, be fun, and meet other girls who like technology,'” Alexis said.

She is a driver, one of the students who controls the robots movements.

“I like how you get to see your finished product, … [in] most fields, you don’t get to see what you do,” she said. “But here, it’s like you get to see how it goes. It’s kind of like, ‘Oh yeah, I did that. I made that.'”

The top teams — Edison High School, Northeast High School and two Central teams — advanced to the state championships.

The event sponsors included McKean Defense, Comcast and Ignite Philly.

“I love seeing what the kids can do when you give them a set of parts and say, ‘Go for it,'” said Wexler, volunteer master of ceremonies.

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