By Tessa Raebeck
They design, build and program robots, fundraise for their team and build alliances for intense competition — and they do it all on free periods, during lunch and after school.
Having just received the regulations for this year’s game, the 30 students on the Pierson Robotics Team are now hard at work preparing a unique robot model for battle.
The Pierson Whalers robotics team, whose members call themselves “The Beasts from the East,” is more than an after school club; students spend hours researching and designing, building in the lab and trucking up and down Main Street in search of sponsors. They maintain active Facebook, Twitter and YouTube pages and a team website and share accounts in robot chat rooms or informative forums.
“Those who are really involved are there all the time, after school, at lunch, all the time,” said Abi Gianis, a junior at Pierson who joined the team as a sophomore. “We work in our free periods as well, at least we try to.”
When the schools were closed early Tuesday afternoon due to inclement weather, team leaders Lucas Pickering and Alex Cohen were hard at work in the Pierson Middle/High School basement.
The team meets throughout the school year, but they are now in fierce preparation for April, when their finished robot will compete in the three-day Long Island Regional competition at Hofstra University. Now in its 15th year, the Long Island Regional has grown from eight teams to near 50.
The international competition, or the “Superbowl of Smarts,” has grown to over 2,000 teams, with 40 regional events from Israel to Brazil.
Established in 1995, the Pierson Robotics team won the second Long Island Regional Competition in 2000 and was a finalist in 2001, 2002 and 2004. Out of thousands of teams competing in US FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC), the Beasts from the East are proud to note their team number is 28, representing their veteran status
In addition to points gained in direct competition, teams are judged on excellence in design, demonstrated team spirit, professionalism and maturity, and ability to overcome obstacles. Pierson received Judges Awards in 1998 and 2000.
“Winning means building partnerships that last,” the Beasts from the East say on their team website.
FRC released the rules and framework of the competition January 4, and the students have been hard at work designing and constructing their model ever since. They have six weeks to prepare their robot, meaning the deadline is less than a month away — and this is crunch time.
FRC challenges competing teams to solve a common problem under the same rules and using the same standard “kit of parts” to build a robot that weighs around 130 pounds.
“They’re working on prototypes now and they’re starting to build it,” said Gayle Pickering, who mentors the team along with her husband Rick, Robotics Coordinator Clint Schulman and Robotics Assistant Rob Coe. Four students from East Hampton High School are also on the team and shop teacher Trevor Gregory works with the Sag Harbor mentors.
This year’s game, Aerial Assist, requires two alliances of three robots each. The three-team alliances compete against each other in a game sort of like robot basketball. The robot must be able to lift up and throw a ball that is two feet in diameter. Last year’s Pierson robot, named the “Harpoon” but also called “Mission Impossible,” shot Frisbees across a court.
Since the game requires an alliance this year, the Pierson team must market itself to teams from other school districts and scout out potential partners.
“We’re challenged,” said Gianis, “to make a robot that can not only pick up a ball with a two foot diameter, but also cooperate with other robots that we have never interacted with before and help assist them.”
Looking for more female engineers, Shulman encouraged Gianis and friend Clara Oppenheimer to join the team last year. Now the two are being trained to program the robot next year when the senior programmers graduate.
“It’s a game for nerds,” Pickering said, “but anybody can participate.”