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Education / Events / Mentorship / Robotics / STEM

Pensa Labs sponsors a local robotics team, and so should your tech firm

Organizers of last Sunday's NYC FIRST robotics competition say area students need more STEM-savvy mentors. Here's our recap of the event.

A robot matchup at the NYC FIRST Tech Challenge, March 1, 2015. (Photo by Brady Dale)

Dumbo hardware design firm Pensa Labs sponsored an all-girls robotics team out of a high school in Hewlett, N.Y., on Long Island. After getting contacted by one of the team members, Pensa provided training in using its DIWire wire-bending machine and let the team borrow a unit to construct part of their machine, according to Marco Perry, a Pensa cofounder.
The team, called Bionica, will soon be headed to the super regionals in Scranton to compete for a spot at the championship event in St. Louis.
Bionica used DIWire to construct the pathways that guide scooped-up balls, Perry explained. The team, he said, designed the tracks themselves. Pensa just provided an explanation of how DIWire works.
Last year, Pensa Labs sponsored another school in California with a DIWire. Perry said the company was excited to support a school closer to home.


Teams build robots from a kit of parts, designed to work on a pre-determined field. In each match, two different school teams are paired up against two other school teams. One side is red and the other is blue. They compete to accomplish a task. Whichever side accomplishes the most in a given round wins.
Last Sunday, at the FIRST Tech Challenge regional competition at NYU Poly, 40 teams from the metropolitan area competed to get wiffle balls and plastic golf balls out of a giant container and then into tubes around the game field. The game was called “Cascade.” Points were awarded based on how high the tubes were filled. Each competition started with a 30-second autonomous period where the robots executed a previously scripted program on their own, and then the students picked up their controllers and ran their robots.
We watched a match with Flying Dragon and Standard Model on red and Theoretically Impossible and Tetricons on blue, as an NYC FIRST spokesperson explained the gameplay for us.
Many teams went for the hardest-to-reach tube with elaborate systems. Check out the end of this match that we caught in person:


Pat Daly is the executive director of NYC FIRST, the organization that helps facilitate the regional competitions and the spread of the sport. Only one Brooklyn school was present in Sunday’s competition and Daly explained that many of the schools in the borough have poorly-resourced and newer teams.
However, FIRST very much promotes a concept called “gracious professionalism.” Daly said they strongly encourage newer teams to show up at events, even if their robot isn’t working. If they come early, she said, more machines will get it running for them.
She also said it’s not uncommon for more established teams to let newer teams come to their school and practice on the play field they’ve set up. Many of the newer schools don’t have space or the resources for those fields.
One area the tech community can help out with is mentoring teams.
Major corporate supporters like Google and Goldman Sachs mentor teams, Daly said, but their mentorship across the board is the strongest on the software side. Ben Esner, of NYU Poly’s K12 STEM Education program, which helps to facilitate much of the mentorship for many robotics teams, said what’s really lacking is mentors on the mechanical and electrical side.
The 40 teams participating represented something like 400 students, aged 12-18, competing using STEM skills, which helps to fit it into the broader story of building a STEM pipeline in New York. FIRST has been running in New York City for 15 years, while NYC FIRST is two years old. Daly said that FIRST alumni pop up all over the city.
One Brooklyn school got to participate in the regional championships, the Seahorse Stallions, a rookie team from John Dewey High School in Gravesend.

Companies: Pensa / FIRST Robotics
Series: Brooklyn

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