HOPEWELL: Robots teach more than technology 

Editor’s note: This piece was written by Infinity team’s coach, Sharon Kiefer.
‘Twas the night before the First Lego League competition and all through the Levines’ garage not a creature was stirring — except the Infinity robotics team from Hopewell.
Dominic Guarino, Jimmy Kiefer, Henry Stanton, Jack Spagnoletti and Andrew Levine, a group of 7th graders from Timberlane and St. Paul’s School. They were all gathered around their practice mat, for the third time this week, finetuning robot movements and tweaking their Lego Mindstorms programs.
This year’s First Lego League challenge was “Trash Trek” — all about recycling. The boys were headed to Bridgewater early the next morning, one of the many sites across the nation where robotics clubs come together for a friendly, but highly, competitive faceoff challenge with their robots.
Each club would accumulate points by participating in three presentations: pitching a proposal for recycling or improving the recycling process of any material; a robots design demonstration, and a core values team challenge.
The boys have been working tirelessly every weekend since mid-September under the direction of their high school mentor, Jake Schaeffer from the SPIKE robotics team at Hopewell Valley High School.
The Infinity members have amazing synergy. Some members are master computer programmers; others apply their love of engineering and physics to building the robot and its attachments. They are “simple and efficient” in their approach, the way Jake taught them.
Now in the homestretch, their Robot, “the Guacanator,” was impressive. It maneuvered around the mat seamlessly. With its forklift base, rotating tread body and creative arm attachments it was programmed to perform the Trash Trek missions with ease.
With a few clicks of a button on the robot’s “brick” base, the Guacanator launches into the recycling scene to demo a bathroom, collect compost, empty trash cans, drop off Lego workers, demolish a building while catching the Lego bricks into a basket, and finally it was off to the sorter to sort the trash, all in 2½ minutes, careful not to leave behind any black bricks, which are considered penalties.
After weeks of teamwork, Infinity nailed five of the Trash Trek missions and they were hoping to accumulate about 450 points at the competition the next day. Then the unthinkable happened.
“OK, let’s separate into our team of two and scrimmage like it’s the real thing. Remember to demonstrate gracious professionalism.”
Coaches Melina Guarina and Sharon Kiefer stand by to guide the team in the final hours. Andrew and Jimmy step up to the table and align robot, check coordinates and search the robots files for its first mission.
The Guacanator launches backwards. OK, let’s try that again. Was the wrong button pressed? The boys search the file name that worked moments before. It was gone.
Dominic checks the computer. “Let’s download it again.”
He checks the computer.
“They are all wiped out. Every program is missing chunks of information. This isn’t right,” he says.
Click, click, click. They check the robot’s wires, batteries, etc.
After some troubleshooting, they call Henry who had just left to pack for a trip. “Go to the main frame and check the explorer file,” he says.
After trying this and many failed attempts to retrieve the programs, the boys realize the files somehow became corrupt and are not working properly, maybe the result of lack of capacity with the 2002 computer.
As discouraging as this was, we were surprised at how calm and collected the team was, joking around that they would camp out in the garage and work in shifts until they reprogrammed the robot to perform its tasks.
After a couple more hours they realized they couldn’t possibly duplicate their efforts from the last two months. In true 4-H form, they did what they do at every meeting and followed parliamentary procedure and took a vote. They decided to go go-cart racing the next day instead. Then, at their coaches’ urging, they reconsidered.
“The robot missions are only 25 percent of your overall score,” Ms. Guarina says. “The presentations are where you guys shine as well. You got this. You know your parts. You’ve done all the research about Styrofoam by talking to the township, our local Dunkin’ Donuts manager and customers, and Lionhart Corp. waste removal company. Maybe you can write a couple of programs for the robot in the down time.”
“Yes, and nothing can erase all of the hard work and creativity it took to get to this point,” says coach Kiefer. “You guys know what you’ve accomplished. And you’ve learned so much this season. Let’s finish this. Just go and do your best.”
“We should at least try,” says Andrew, and the others agreed.
Ms. Guarina made a quick call to the site coordinator at Bridgewater and explained what happened.
“Come. You have to come” were the words of Jeff Steele, a robotics teacher himself. “This is how character is built,” he emphasized, when we got there.
And it was. The boys persevered from 9 a.m. until their last match at 3:30 p.m. In one of their presentations they talked about how Infinity applies FLL core values: We are a team. We do the work to find solutions with guidance from our coaches and mentors. We know our coaches and mentors don’t have all the answers; we learn together. We honor the spirit of friendly competition. What we discover is more important than what we win. We share our experiences with others. We display Gracious Professionalism and Cooperation in everything we do. We have fun!
When asked what has been your biggest challenge preparing for the competition, Dominic said, “Funny you should ask” and proceeded to tell the judges what happened the night before.
“But we decided to make the best of it and come anyway and try our best,” said Dominic.
Jack chimed in about how Infinity always takes opportunities to have fun no matter what happens.
At closing ceremonies Infinity won the award for being the club that exemplified the FLL core values of inspiration. The trophy is a gold cup made of Legos. Several clubs were selected to move on to the state championships. In the last couple of years Lego executives increased the number of robotics teams that compete in the Nationals and World Championships — not to “win,” but to be a part of the “journey.”
Infinity Robotics team will remember their journey to FLL 2015. Member Jimmy Kiefer glanced at the trophy one more time as he jumped in the car at the end of the day. He reflected on it and said, “The Core Value award is really the best award that Infinity could have gotten because that is what it’s all about anyway.”
“You’re absolutely right,” his mom replied. 