Stuy robot team going for national title


By Gal Beckerman

On a recent Monday afternoon, in room 450 of Stuyvesant High School, Lola suddenly came to life. Her arm lifted with a hydraulic whoosh of air, her red police light swirled, and she rolled forward and then reversed. Sitting next to her was Jack and a group of students digging their hands into his splayed guts of green and red wires. Larry, the youngest, partly disassembled, lay on a table nearby, his large net-like hands frozen in the air, mid-applause.

Lola, Jack and Larry are, of course, robots and their young inventors are the students who make up Stuyvesant High’s robotics team.

For each of the past three years, a team of thirty to forty Stuyvesant students have taken part in the annual FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics competition. The contest, which began in early January, challenges students to engineer and then construct the most efficient robot for carrying out a series of complex tasks. Students are given six weeks to finish their robots. They then compete against other schools at a regional and national level to see which robot can outperform all the others.

“StuyPulse,” as the Stuyvesant team calls itself, won the New York regional competition last year with their robot, Lola, but could not afford the thousands of dollars needed to fly the students to Houston for the nationals. This time around, both the team and its adult organizers are determined to avoid any last minute financial obstacles to get to Atlanta in April.

“We are going to go,” said Rafael Colon, the supervisor of the team since its start four years ago. “Somehow or another, we’ll make it. We can’t disappoint them twice.”

The sound of electrical saws buzzed through the robotics lab earlier this week as the team put the finishing touches on Larry (named after this year’s major sponsor, Stuyvesant alumnus, Larry Gralla). The students, all wearing large plastic goggles to protect their eyes, screwed on the newborn robot’s side panels (recently milled to reduce the robot’s weight to 130 pounds, competition regulation) and connected his green pneumatic tubes.

Gordon Franken, 18, a senior and co-president of the “StuyPulse” has been with the team since he was a freshman. As he leaned over Larry, goggles safely on, he explained the complexity of this year’s competition. Among other tasks, Larry will have to collect a series of scattered balls, throw them in a basket, and perform a pull-up.

Although some of the other teams are heavily guided by trained engineers, Franken said, “Our robots are pretty much all student-designed, operated and maintained.” Engineers do aid the group but, as was evidenced Monday afternoon, students were at ease cutting, rewiring, and soldering Larry’s many parts themselves.

Only occasionally could alarm be heard. “It smells like something’s burning,” one student said to another, leaning over Lola. “Yeah, something is definitely burning.” Colon, the supervisor, jumped from student to student, reminding those freshman who were new to the team to wear their safety masks.

For those students more adept at cognitive skills (as opposed to athletic ones) the contest gives them a chance to be noticed for their work. “You go to competitions and you see people cheering, wearing t-shirts, carrying banners, sometimes they even bring their cheerleaders,” Franken said. “And we’re just intellectuals, geeks, who have all built robots.”

Colon said the students’ work on the robots also allows them to apply math and science concepts that otherwise never leave the pages of textbooks, as well as problem solve unforeseeable technical difficulties.

For many, including Sonia Gollance, 16, a junior who has worked both on fundraising for the team and, this year, on engineering, helping to build a  robot is a chance to get close to students who have similar interests.

“We just become like family,” Gollance said. “We just had a long winter vacation. But most of us were here everyday, just working on the robot.”

The team will be showing off Larry, as well as Lola (inspired by Kinks and Barry Manilow songs) and Jack (named for Jack Welch, a benefactor of the 2002 team), on March 11 at a demonstration in the Winter Garden of the World Financial Center beginning at 11 a.m. More information about “StuyPulse” can be found at their Web site (www.stuypulse.com).

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