I, Robotics Team

J.P. Stevens H.S. robotics team preps for competition


Click Here to View in HD

At one point during the J.P. Stevens High School robotics team’s practice on Oct. 24, students had to fetch metal fans from a back room and begin running them. This was because they were concerned that they might inadvertently set off the fire alarm.

JEFF GRANIT staff Jessica Chen (l-r), Sidhartha Gandhi and Kevin Nayee, members of the J.P. Stevens High School robotics team, work on the circuit board for their robot. They are preparing for their face-off against North Brunswick High School in November.

The reason for these worries could be detected in the slight burning odor that lingered in the room — the product of power tools the teens were using to construct the machine they hoped would lead them to victory in their upcoming competition.

The machine’s name is Dingary. It’s a metal tower about 3 feet tall resting on a wide base, chains running up and down its length. Ultimately, its purpose is to throw a large ball, about as big as a large dog curled up, across the room.

A task that seems simple for a human can be extremely complex for a robot. That’s why, with only a week before the competition, members of the robotics team saw, drill and build to bring their creation to life.

Neel Belani, the team captain and a senior at J.P. Stevens, explained that motors power a pair of wheels at the bottom, which then drive the chains that make the robot move. Meanwhile, a set of coiled springs in the main tower section give it extra power when the time comes to move the ball. The team still needed to affix some electric components before the competition begins.

This is the second year the robotics team has existed. Belani said the club began when he was given a class assignment in which he needed to write to the district superintendent about something he thought was important. He decided to talk about how a robotics program would be a great fit for the school.

Deciding to pursue things further, Belani called a physics teacher at the school, Paul Sekular, who is now the head coach of the team, and who was on vacation at the time. While initial funding was a concern, a grant from NASA solved that problem, and the robotics team, as a part of the school’s Chemistry-Physics Club, began.

The team’s inaugural year was a learning experience, according to members of the team. Still, with research and work, and help from various people within the community, they began to improve.

"We definitely started out with knowing basically nothing about robotics. However, we started with programming and electric [work] and mechanical [work], and so we did a lot of research and eventually got it together," said junior Sophia Hsu, 16.

They took part in a competition at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, and according to Sekular, they did pretty well for a rookie team, coming in second among first-year teams.

Belani said the team has come a long way since then.

"I think the team itself has improved a lot. We’re starting to work well together a lot and mingle and trust each other more, kind of like a football team. Team dynamics are very important. I think we’ve learned a lot more," said Belani.

Dingary the robot has already been through a competition at the Javitz Center in New York City earlier this year. While preparing for the new competition in North Brunswick, they are essentially rebuilding it from scratch to suit its new purposes, Belani said.

Building a robot and getting it ready to compete is a complex affair. It begins with conceptual design, where the general idea for how the machine is going to work is hammered out. After that, the workings are further refined on a literal drawing board, and then the programming stage, where people configure how the robot will behave and react to various controls, begins.

"You can program the robot to do pretty much anything if you have enough ingenuity," said Ethan Nadler, 16, a junior.

From there, the work of putting the machine together begins, which can come with a lot of trial and error. Field tests generally follow, and then comes the competition. In between all this, the team reaches out to the community, does fundraisers and performs science demonstrations for younger students.

The appeal of the robotics club varies for each member, though most express their enjoyment of getting to work hands-on to apply the concepts they learn in class.

"I don’t think you can get this out of a science classroom or anything. This stuff, it’s much better than what you get in a lab, because it lets you apply what you learned in school. The experience I gained in robotics I could not have gained anywhere else. … I think the best part about robotics is hanging out with these guys, getting that sense of community and relationship. I really enjoyed that," said senior Devendra Gujar.