Robotics help kids have fun with science

The influence of Tech Valley is trickling down to the students who may be the next GE engineers and

The influence of Tech Valley is trickling down to the students who may be the next GE engineers and GlobalFoundries technicians with robotics, an activity that combines science with fun.

Robotics was until recently an obscure club — it attracted 18 students at Ballston Spa High School when the school first started a team five years ago. It’s now grown in Ballston Spa to about 40 teens at the high school and another 70 students at the middle and elementary schools.

That interest is reflected throughout the Capital Region, where the growth of technology businesses allows schools to create partnerships with companies that also supply robotics teams with experienced mentors.

At a glance

The public is invited to a free robot exhibition Saturday, as well as youths who are interested in joining or starting teams and adults interested in becoming team mentors.

What: Tech Valley Robot Rumble

When: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday

Where: Hudson Valley Community College’s Training and Education Center for Semiconductor Manufacturing and Alternative and Renewable Technologies (TEC-SMART), 345 Hermes Road, Malta

Who: Teams from 14 school districts are expected to attend

“We get that introspective look at how businesses are operating in the Capital Region,” said Bethany Angeliu, 16, a junior at Shenendehowa High School. “That’s probably one of the most important parts.”

Locally, many mentors come from GE, GlobalFoundries and Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory. One of the local mentors, Greg Mohr, was recently honored by the KAPL NOVA Society for his service to the Ballston Spa team.

Three local teams competed with 400 others in the FIRST World Championship Tournament last month in St. Louis — Shenendehowa’s Team 20, Ballston Spa High School’s team No. 3044 and a Ballston Spa-based community team of middle-schoolers called Gears in Motion. It was the first time the two Ballston Spa teams advanced to that level.

Shenendehowa Central School District students have been there before. The district is one of the regional pioneers in robotics, its students having competed in FIRST events since that organization was founded 22 years ago.

This year’s high school team had 83 members. Some of them are Tech Valley offspring. Angeliu and her two older siblings grew up wondering what their engineer father, Tom, did at KAPL and later visited him at his jobs at GE.

And Shenendehowa junior Brennon Brimhall joined the team after his family moved here a year and a half ago from Utah for his father’s job at GlobalFoundries.

“He had never heard of the FIRST robotics programs,” said his father, Brett. But it’s been a great opportunity for Brennon, who is now the team’s lead programmer.

“I’ve just been absolutely thrilled that my son has been able to be involved,” Brett Brimhall said.

FIRST Lego League was started in 1998 by inventor Dean Kamen and Lego Group owner and Deputy Chairman Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen. Teams of students ages 9 to 14 can sign up for local teams.

Local students’ interest in robotics has become so great that FIRST, an organization that runs regional and worldwide robotics competitions, recognizes the region needs more tournaments here, said Diane Irwin, K-12 science coordinator for the Ballston Spa Central School District. Local students who compete in robotics now go to Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut, as well as a few regional competitions in upstate New York.

A local robotics event being held this weekend is just for fun. On Saturday, teams from 14 schools will hold an exhibition at Hudson Valley Community College’s Training and Education Center for Semiconductor Manufacturing and Alternative and Renewable Technologies, or TEC-SMART, in Malta.

In the World Championship Tournament, Shen’s Team 20 finished 10th in its division of 100 teams, Bethany Angeliu said.

“It was really, really exciting to be there,” she said.

The competitions give students a taste of how they can apply their math, engineering, science and programming skills to real tasks, said Irwin, the Ballston Spa science coordinator.

“It’s really preparing the students to do something that’s fun, that’s hands-on, that’s creative,” she said. “Many of our graduates have gone on to pursue engineering and robotics programs.”

Robotics is becoming more popular around the nation and worldwide, Irwin said. At the world competition April 24-27, the top winners included students from Colombia, Israel, Pakistan and Spain, as well as U.S. students from Missouri, Washington state, California and Arkansas.

The club is about more than just being a math or programming geek. Students take on various roles as part of the team and have to work together just as they would on a project at work, said Judy Mayfield, Angeliu’s mother.

“It’s really a pretty diverse club that can appeal to a lot of different kids of kids,” she said of her three eldest children, who participated in the team. “Leadership is really what they’ve gotten.”

They also team up with other schools at competitions, and winning depends on working together, Mayfield said.

“These are not necessarily teams that you know before the competition,” she said. “They do compete, but it’s also really about being cooperative.”

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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