State Assemblymen Michael Montesano, a Republican from Glen Head, and Ed Ra, a Republican from Franklin Square, took a break from legislating to learn about robotics from North Shore High School’s resident experts, the RoboGym robotics team. The lawmakers were invited by the high school to watch a demonstration of the team’s robot, “Fran,” and get schooled in the STEM program.
It was a unique opportunity for the students to become the teachers, as the assemblymen marveled in wonder at the robot whizzing across the woodshop floor. They asked questions of the team members to find out how they designed, built and competed with such a machine.
On the first Saturday in January, high school robotics teams from around the world receive a guidebook detailing the rules and requirements for the FIRST Robotics Competition, an international program that combines the excitement of sport with the rigors of science and technology. Teams have six weeks from receiving their guidebooks to design and build an industrial-size robot to compete in alliance-style tournament rounds against other bots. The objective is to accomplish a task in the shortest time while being awarded the most points.
This year, RoboGym created a bot to engage in “Destination: Deep Space,” presented by Boeing. The competition involved two alliances of three teams each battling side by side to place polycarbonate hatch covers and orange rubber balls onto a rocket ship before the end of the match. As team captain Hanah Leventhal explained the design and build process in great detail, the lawmakers listened in awe.
“It’s great to see that this program is taking hold here,” said Montesano, who once served on the North Shore School District’s Board of Education. “What I like most is that it gets all these students together from different grade levels, different walks of life and different interests, and through the collaboration on these projects they’re all learning from each other, and they’re taking these experiences with them.”
He made special mention of Leventhal, a senior who will attend Yale University this fall to study mechanical engineering. “It’s really mind-blowing how I’ve gone from knowing nothing about tools, machines and the design process to being able to speak to these assemblymen and tell them what we do and how we do it,” she said. “The fact that they’re here shows how much we’ve grown as a team.”
The team initially had only five members. Now, it has over 30.
Junior James Coutsoukes said the team’s larger presence has been felt not only in the build room, but in the community as well. RoboGym consistently holds fundraisers around town to support entry and building fees for the FIRST competitions. They also hold robot demonstrations at the elementary and middle schools to teach their younger counterparts about STEM learning.
“We have started to feel like a more unified group while helping everybody in our community and doing more outreach,” Coutsoukes said. “Personally I have spent so many hours on this team, and to reach the point where we have assemblymen coming to our club is a great feat for me and all my friends.”
Montesano said the legislature was pushing to increase funding for STEM programs statewide, acknowledging that every student learns differently. Students at North Shore, he said, have “always excelled in the music and the arts, but now they’re going into STEM. It’s given everybody something to do.”
He added, “The school plays such an integral part of the community and the formation of our children, so it does my heart good to see [the team’s] work and success in the competitions.”
As Leventhal and Coutsoukes recounted RoboGym’s efforts, their eyes and their smiles widened. Being part of the team is clearly more than just building, designing and dueling robots. For these students, it’s a second home.
“I’ve taught multiple kids that I would even consider my children to a certain extent,” Coutsoukes said. “It’s a really a great experience.”