By Kenneth J. Souza
FALL RIVER, Mass. — It’s one thing to conjure up droids like R2-D2 or C3PO for a science-fiction film, but it takes an entirely different skill set to physically build and program an automated robot that can maneuver through a maze-like challenge course.
Students in the new after-school Robotics Club at St. Stanislaus School in Fall River are not only learning these skills firsthand, they’ve also managed to rack up a few awards and well-deserved accolades along the way.
“They started getting together informally last year … but they were really just building things and smashing them together,” explained school principal Jean Willis. “But they went at it in earnest. Then in December one of the club moderators realized that VEX ran a robotics competition so they went in January to the first competition and they won. Then they swept the regionals!”
The fledgling team is comprised of six students in grades five through seven — Zoey Mills, Ryan Saucier, Jacob Torres, Zachary Falcon, Justin Silva and Connor Gendron. The collective club managed to take first-place honors in the VEX Robotics state qualifying competition in Hopkinton in January. That led to competing in the VEX IQ Challenge Southern New England Competition in Worcester on March 5, where they once again came in first place and also garnered a Judges Award for exemplary teamwork.
“We really didn’t have high hopes — second to last place was our goal — and we went there and won,” said team member Jacob Torres, 12. “We made this just from our brains — there was really no guide to tell us what to do.”
This weekend the group will be traveling all the way to Louisville, Ky., for the VEX IQ Challenge 2017 World Competition that will be held April 22-26, facing off against hundreds of student teams from all over the world.
“We skipped the U.S. competition and we’re going straight to the world competition,” said 12-year-old Zachary Falcon, whose parents serve as volunteer moderators for the club. “There will be more than 100 teams, so we have a lot of competition to deal with. But we’re going with the same attitude: we don’t think we’re going to do amazing, but we’re going to try.”
Having his parents onboard guiding the club doesn’t hurt, either.
“His mother, Lucy, is a software engineer and his father, Mark, is an engineering teacher, so it works well,” Willis said. “They volunteer their time and they also run our track club — they are very involved in the school.”
Using a computer language known as “Robot C,” the students build and program remote-controlled robots that they cobble together from Lego-like kits provided by VEX.
“Robots are dumb, and you have to talk to them in their language,” said 13-year-old Ryan Saucier. “You have to explain: ‘Do this, but don’t do this while doing that.’”
To provide a level playing field, all teams have access to the same components — but they’ll ultimately be judged on how they use them and apply their science, math and engineering skills to the project.
“Everything comes with the kit, but some of them are more advanced,” Saucier said. “Our first robot was just a little claw that could pick up things sideways. The robot we won regionals with was one of the simplest ones we’ve made. I couldn’t believe we won with that one. It was just so simple I don’t think anyone else thought of it.”
“We had a sample program, so we based our (coding) on that sample program,” said Connor Gendron, 11. “They give you directions and any part they sell you can be used on your robot. So every year the challenge is different. Last year they had a bunch of colored blocks and you had to stack them. One team had a robot that would sort all the blocks by colors and shoot them into a tower, assorted by color. You have to code it that way — there are color sensors you can put on the robot.”
Admitting she always liked building things with Legos, the lone girl on the team, 11-year-old Zoey Mills, said robotics seemed like a natural progression.
“I never got to drive a Lego, so I figured I’d try robotics,” she said.
Father Andrew Johnson, pastor of St. Stanislaus Parish, expressed great pride in seeing the students excel in this new area of expertise.
“We rolled the dice a couple of years ago when we bought these robots. It didn’t cost anything, but look how it’s paid off,” Father Johnson told The Anchor. “It wasn’t unsuspected, but it really was a joy to see them win the competition. They were just hoping not to finish last, but to come in first means everything.”
Father Johnson even agreed to bless the club’s first robot, which they initially called “Adrastos.”
“It’s a Greek word that means ‘not inclined to run away,’” Falcon said. “The funny thing is, we made a video for people to support us and we told them it was a holy robot and (Father Johnson) had blessed it. But instead of naming it after a Catholic name, we had used a pagan name, so we have to find a new name!”
Willis is lobbying to rename the robot after the patron saint of robotics, St. Macrina the Younger.
“She’s the sister of St. Basil and I also think it would be nice to give it a female name,” Father Johnson agreed.
Part of the STEM curriculum, which emphasizes the disciplines of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, the VEX Robotics program encompasses students from elementary to college levels and teaches them how to use critical thinking skills that they might not otherwise apply.
“Learning robotics helps you to figure out problems and it helps you with math, science, and things like that,” said Torres who, like many of his teammates, aspires to one day become an engineer.
“This is a good step forward to get there,” he added.
This week the club members will all be focusing their attention on the big three-day competition in Kentucky and, perhaps, looking to best the one team that scares them more than the others: a group from Beijing, China.
While some of them will be traveling by plane to the competition, others will be making the 14-hour trek by car. As such, they are seeking donations to help offset travel expenses.
“This past week, I told parishioners about the club and we had five donations come in during our weekly collection,” Father Johnson said.
With the Robotics Club’s newfound fame, other students are now expressing an interest in joining next year.
“Now that the other kids have seen it, a lot more kids are excited about joining,” Willis said. “And we just started an Engineering Club this year for grades three to five. We’re doing that as sort of a prep for (the Robotics Club).”
“This has been great for us, and it’s great for the kids, too,” Father Johnson agreed. “These kids are all good at computer games, but this takes it to another level. And it gets the school’s name out there and for something we’re not exactly known for.”
Those interested in making a donation to help the St. Stanislaus School Robotics Club can visit their GoFundMe page at www.gofundme.com/ststansrobotics.
To make a tax-deductible donation, mail it to St. Stanislaus School, 37 Rockland Street, Fall River, MA 02724, or call 508-674-6771.