Move over NASA! It’s Build Season once again for the Montgomery High School robotics team, and they are taking their robot to the highest of depths: “Destination Deep Space.”
This year’s build season kicked off on January 5 to launch what will be a robot adventure in outer space! Well, their robot is not really going into outer space, but that little detail does not derail this team’s imagination.
The team has produced a fully functioning robot, which the team has named “Armstrong” after astronaut Neil Armstrong to fit with this year’s space theme, and to show that the main feature of the robot is its powerful arm.
The goal this year is to drive a robot from a platform area known as its “natural habitat” into a sectioned off area of what will be referred to as “space” to load up a rocket with cargo! Then, of course, it has to head back home, by maneuvering its way up a platform to the safety of its home base. The robot that has the most cargo wins. Did we mention the robot will be unable to see due to a blinding sandstorm striking the galaxy?
This sci-fi adventure in reality involves a great deal of real-life technology and teamwork. The students have been working tirelessly for weeks.
It all started with a drawing to real-life assembly complete with their own parts designed in a $15,000 CNC mill. The first competition will be at Mt. Olive High School on March 8, 9, and 10. Montgomery High School will be hosting its own event on March 30 and 31, at the school, open to the public for free.
What is it all for? Well, F.I.R.S.T. (For Inspiration & Recognition of Science & Technology) is the international organization that runs robotics competitions all over the world and provides students with a chance to win big.
Montgomery has hosted the kickoff event every season for years now.
At the kickoff event, the students were given a theme and a six-week timeline to build a robot. Then, the robot itself will compete against other robots in an Olympic-style sporting event to the finish!
The road to success comes first with camaraderie, and the host team has always provided the greatest example, with workshops and seminars to other teams. Hence, the real foundation for Montgomery’s Robotics team lies beyond the prize.
Led by Team Advisor and Montgomery High School Technology Education Teacher Tim Leicht since 2005, the team has an astounding 105 members. Yet, that was not always the case.
“At the start of the team, we had 10-15 members,” Leicht said. Yet, just two years after Leicht took over, the robotics team started to thrive. “We are a team that is respected in the F.I.R.S.T. community due to all the activities we host and are always willing to help out wherever needed. At our Montgomery district event last year, we had between 1,000-1,500 people.”
And Leicht is as popular with his students as well.
“This team wouldn’t function without him,” according to Janum Shah, senior, and Team Co-Captain.
Team captains: Vineet Pasumarti & Janum Shah
Leicht in fact now has brought the family spirit to the team literally, with his wife Patricia and son Michael also an integral part of the team as mentors.
“The Robotics team in (my high school) gave me the opportunity to do something with my life,” son Michael Leicht says. Michael now wants to give back, so he volunteers as a mentor in his father's program at the high school.
“My mentors saw the passion (in me) and build it up so that I could become an engineer. It is more rewarding for me to mentor here and foster the same enthusiasm (I had) as much as I can,” Michael said. “We love to watch students grow from quiet freshman to be team leaders as seniors. We have many Sunday night dinners discussing what we might do at the next Cougar class. Giving back to the students and team is an important part of our lives.”
The team now has nationwide sponsorship including: Bristol-Myers Squibb and the Department of Defense STEM.
The team has three main student sections: Administration, Logistics, and, of course, Robotics. And, there is an entire application process for any leadership roles, as in a job.
Administration and is run by Shah, and Vineet Pasumarti, both seniors and co-captains. Yet, it is clear that both are excited to be running the show as a team effort as friends since third grade.
“We haven’t had two team captains since 2015,” Pasumarti. “It was a huge relief to be able to work together.”
Like many seniors, these two young men have been on the team since freshman year. They have bright futures thanks to tons of hard work they have already put forth as high schoolers. Pasumarti has been the student chosen to “drive” the robot for the past two years at their games and will, of course drive this one into “space.” He is now looking to major in Aero Space Engineering in college to help people fly into the depths of outer space and beyond. How apropos.
Shah will graduate high school with an associate degree thanks to an advanced VoTech program called the Academy for Health and Medical Sciences and has been accepted into Princeton University.
The administration layer continues with a robotics manager, Niva Sivakumar, senior; an assistant manager, Surya Murthy, senior; and logistics manager, Pranav Saboo, senior.
“Robot manager is directly under the team captains and overlooks the programming, mechanical, design and programming sub teams,” according to Sivakumar. In other words, she and Murthy make sure that robot gets built, in charge of everything from scheduling and managing. Oh yes, and they also have to understand every aspect of those sub teams’ building process, even if they have specialized in only one sub team in the past. How?
Sivakumar thanks all the preparation in the pre-season they have for that. “Pre-season is a time for new leadership positions to really understand their role they’re in and become comfortable.”
The logistics manager Pranav Saboo, senior, is in charge of the entire staff that supports the robotics side in preparation, documentation, communication and charitable events.
The team is then of course made up of the two sides: Robotics and Logistics, each with four sub-sections. Logistics includes: strategy, business and communication, audio/visual, and outreach, (logistics). The Robotics side, of course consists of design, electrical, mechanical, and programming. Each subsection has its own captains, sometimes multiple.
Dizzy yet? These kids aren’t. In fact, from the excitement of 100-plus kids in a single room, it is clear to see just how well they work together. It is a great combination of brains, enthusiasm and energy all in one. Anywhere you look, it is clear to see that just being together is what makes this robotics team proud. Not only are kids involved, but many volunteer adult mentors give their time consistently and tirelessly too.
According to Leicht: “Mentors are an important part of the F.I.R.S.T. Robotics program and Team 1403. Many of our mentors are parents that started with their child and never left after the students graduated.”
Best of all, some of those mentors are alumni. One is a former student from its first year, back in 2004, Bill Davey, 30. Davey, a 2006 Montgomery High School graduate is now a game engine developer for Verizon. That means the kids get their very own mentor that helps make their favorite games. For Davey, though, it is especially rewarding to see how far the team has grown since his time as a student.
As Davey says: “For me, it means a lot to me to come back and mentor. I remember being on the team very fondly and recall the impact the mentors at the time had on the team and the students within it.”
His wife Caitlin Davey, a mechanical engineer and past F.I.R.S.T robotics team member herself now mentors with him too, keeping the family spirit of the team going.
As Bill Davey says: “She likes that the program is a great way to promote women going into the STEM fields.”
Case in point: Priya Ramakrishnan, a freshman on the Communications team, won a $100 Visa Card this past December for “The Most Cougar Class Wins” this pre-season.
“Science and technology is something I’m interested in for the future,” Ramakrishnan said. “It means a lot to me.”
Karina Zhang, design captain, is in charge the team that helps create the initial designs on the mill machine.
“To be a design captain is teaching the newer members the skills that they need to get through build season. (We) create drawings (and) models. We collaborate with the rest of the teams to get the initial ideas then prototype,” she said.
Karina Zhang, design captain.
“Being a part of robotics is more part of being a larger family.” Zhang said. “You meet a lot of friends here and you really learn and grow together. Because we spend so much time together after school especially during build season. So, you really feel that sense of community.”
Strategy falls into the hands of Riya Patel, and Prianca Nadkarni — both seniors and both females, both team captains for two years straight and have been friends since fifth grade.
So, what does this final stage of strategizing do? They figure out the best way to win the match, of course! This year, that means, they have to figure out how to get that rocket loaded up faster than the rest. It is a most challenging role because most of the strategizing cannot be done until the day of the match, after seeing the competition play and figure out optimal ways to win the most points. It is all done on the spot, yet still requires a lot of research ahead of time and discussions with their sub-teams and “scenario analysis,” according to Nadkarni.
“We take notes and stats of the previous games from the stands so when we are playing a match," Nadkarni says, "we can look through our notes on the spot for our strengths and weaknesses, and they communicate to the other alliances. We have to start from scratch every year. We are sitting in the stands going off of what other teams do. “
And don’t forget the AV team in charge of photo documenting everything. Kevin Kolodziej, junior, AV captain and Lukas Malony, junior and assistant AV captain are there with cameras in hand ready to capture the moments in space.
“We document every single person on the team, including mentors,” Malony said. “We are in charge of making the chairman’s award video, which is what they show if our team wins the chairman’s award, which is the most prestigious award in robotics. It shows what our team stands for.” And, during this year’s deep space build season, he says: “We capture the process of the robot.”
Kolodziej, the AV captain, originally started because his brother and sister started in robotics. He continuing the family tradition.
“They inspired me,” Kolodziej said. “They would always come home and tell me the great time they had in robotics. “It is kind of like a family. You come right after school to a group of people who have a similar interest as you. And it’s always great getting ideas from them and working together to create a final product whether it is a robot or video you are going to share to a lot of people. It is a friendly, cooperative environment that we have here. It really makes me want to come back the next day and the next year.”
Team 1403 also does what it can to give back to the community with outreach. The teach younger kids the magic of robotics, including Lego League, at Montgomery’s Halloween trunk or treat event, as well as educating kids at Cambridge School, helping to collect food for Montgomery’s Food Pantry, and donating personal products for the Trenton Soup Kitchen. This year, according to Leicht, the team is volunteering at the science convention by helping judge and giving a live demo of last year’s robot.
Lastly, Team 1403 is generous with its time even during its own competition. Why?
“The core values of F.I.R.S.T is that we cooperate with other teams and help them out,” says Murthy, as he stands over a large board filled with tons of contraptions demonstrating its functions.
While building a robot to head to space, the team still sets aside time to mentor other teams through the Compass Alliance program this year already.
While many TEAM 1403 members have gone onto prestigious schools such as MIT and Carnegie Mellon, it is no doubt the team spirit is still what makes these stars shine.
Fourteen years and 40 awards later, no matter what happens in the Spring competition season, it is clear the togetherness of Team 1403 is already on an intergalactic new level! ■