For the second straight year, the South Side Middle School robotics team is heading to the world championships in Kentucky, after its hydroponics STEM project wowed the judges and earned the top spot at last month’s state competition.
The victory culminated a memorable year for the team. In February, when the 2017-18 district budget was announced, the students learned that the school board had heard their funding pleas. Now they are weeks away from competing at the Vex Robotics World Championships in Louisville, Ky., April 23-25.
The students will match up against more than 1,400 teams from over 50 countries with one robot and another STEM project. The opening ceremonies at the games are reminiscent of the Olympics, with teams from each country entering the Kentucky Exposition Center, waving their respective national flags.
“It’s a great experience to go and meet other people yet again from the worlds,” said eighth-grader Alisa Barker. “It’s just amazing.”
The trip will cost the team, which comprised of 25 students and two supervisors, about $18,500. Because no money was slated for the students in the current school budget, each family contributed $700 to meet the March 30 registration deadline and offset the cost of their child’s hotel, meals and transportation.
The parents will be reimbursed through sponsorships, candy sales and a GoFundMe page. Those efforts had raised around $13,000 at press time, including more than $4,000 generated during a guest bartender night at Monaghan’s on March 23.
The team, led by advisers and middle school teachers Dan LaManna and Ryan Bockelmann, earned a spot in the March 4 New York state competition with its performance in robotics, but secured a spot at the worlds through a STEM Research Project Award. The project, which focused on hydroponics history, types and technological advances, was showcased with an LED poster display and portable hydroponic lab using recycled water bottles that included a lettuce plant.
Hydroponics is a method of growing plants that does not use soil or natural sunlight. The plant that was used at the state competition was nurtured in the middle school’s greenhouse, and needed water and nutrients to grow.
“If you take away New York City’s ability to import food on a daily basis, it would run out of food in two days,” explained LaManna. “The kids used that as their motivation to look at different farming strategies to actually be able to bring farming into the city or an urban environment.”
Next year’s school budget earmarks $20,000 for the high school and middle school robotics programs. In the months leading up to the budget unveiling, several student robotics enthusiasts addressed the school board, expressing concern over the lack of funding for the program at the high school. Superintendent Dr. William Johnson said at the Jan. 18 meeting that Board of Education trustees would examine the budget and try to find money to support the program.
“I think it’s absolutely wonderful that they are still as excited as the first time they went and are still doing incredibly good work,” Johnson said. “It’s exciting to us, as I hope it is to them.”
Vex clubs and competitions are the fastest-growing competitive robotics programs for elementary, middle, high schools as well as colleges around the world. Each team designs, builds and programs a robot, which must accomplish set tasks to achieve the highest score possible. After each competition, students work together to improve their robot and programming. In addition, the team explores important STEM learning fundamentals — teamwork, problem solving, conflict resolution and sportsmanship.
South Side students are introduced to the program at the middle-school level. They gather several times a week, trying to build a robot that will stand out in competition. The participants also meet at one another’s homes to perfect their creations.
The students and their parents often credit Bockelman and LaManna for the growth of the program. Bockelman has fielded the team for three years and the robotics group for four.
“I feel incredibly fortunate to have the amazing help of Mr. LaManna and Mr. Bockelmann, our coaches, teachers and mentors,” said eighth-grader and co-captain Anna Bingham. “Their encouragement and support have been integral to our success.”
The robotics program started in 2014 through a grant of over $10,000 from the Rockville Centre Education Foundation.