NEWARK – The tools were clanging, spectators were cheering, the announcer’s voice was blaring into a microphone, and Oradel's River Dell Regional High School team surrounded their fragile-looking robot and prayed for victory.
The first match Sunday in the FIRST Tech Challenge state robotics championship did not go too well.
“Our motor isn’t strong enough so we will have to change the gearing to make it stronger during lunchtime,” said Andrew Pohl, 18, a senior, adding that he brought extra gears and tools in case of just such a catastrophe.
With four more matches left in the daylong competition, held at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, “We still have a good chance to win” he said confidently.
Later, though, teams from Livingston and Edison were named the winners, out of the 48 that competed.
The River Dell team, dubbed “The Hypnotic Robotics,” a phrase they wore proudly on their matching yellow T-shirts, has worked on their creation since October, using everything from rubber bands, aluminum, rope and Velcro, along with a standard robot kit that was distributed to every team.
Samantha LoBue, 16, said the project, which required many skipped lunches and late nights, “brought us all together.” Everyone, she said, worked their hardest to solve problems and develop strategies. “I never got to do anything like this before,” she said. “It was very hands on.”
The team made up of students from River Edge and Oradell joined other North Jersey teams from Paterson, Wayne, Englewood, Cliffside Park and Glen Rock.
FIRST Tech Challenge is a challenging robotic competition in which high school students design, build and program a robot using similar parts and then face off against other teams in a series of competitions.
The teams gathered to compete in the championship to earn two slots to at the world championship in St. Louis in the spring, said Vince Frascella, chairman of New Jersey FIRST Tech Challenge Planning Committee. The idea behind the venture, he said, “is to teach life skills, not only the technology but also teamwork and gracious professionalism.”
In a center ring in the gymnasium – crowded with teams from New Jersey and Pennsylvania — the robots were required to perform several tasks, such as moving bowling balls, lifting plastic crates and collecting racquetballs.
Many of these scientifically oriented students took the venture so seriously that one team, from Panther Academy in Paterson, forgot to wear their specially designed T-shirts.
A sheepish Zachary Hall, 16 of Panther Academy, admitted, “I left mine at home,” as his teammates, clad in uncoordinated sweatshirts, chimed in that they also forgot.
With all the intensity in the air, there were some kinks in the robots’ performance: Panther Academy’s robot collided with another robot and disconnected from the server. But Hall never lost his cool. “If we do what we came here to do, we can still win,” he asserted.
And Cliffside Park High School’s team, Megahertz, experienced disappointment when their robot got stuck on a racquetball and couldn’t move. But they managed to score points because their robot picked up a crate and moved into an appropriate position.
“I was frustrated,” admitted a frowning Ishti Rahman, 16. “We couldn’t move.”
Despite the setback, Rahman says he’s enjoyed being a part of the robotics team for the past several years. “Everyone works hard and gets along.”
The Cliffside Park team co-adviser, David Rappaport, said his students have demonstrated to him they are a great team: “They kept changing and reworking it until they perfected it. They worked together and supported each other.”