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May 7, 2018 3:03 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

The Westhampton Beach High School Robotics Team Is More Than Just A Club, It's A Family

Anthony LoPresti, Maxwell Gehrig, Bjorn Christensen, Michelle Kryl and Emily Jaquin. ELSIE BOSKAMP
May 8, 2018 4:18 PM

On most afternoons from January to April, the members of Westhampton Beach High School Hurricanes FIRST Robotics Team 3171 could be found strategizing designs, prototyping different mechanisms, assembling parts and, finally, testing the operating systems of their robot.Like a well-oiled machine, the team of 37 students worked day in and day out, from the end of the school day, at 2:15 p.m., until 10 p.m., to assemble a device that could complete its assigned task: to climb up a bar, pick up objects and place them on scales of various heights, with the end goal of placing more weight on their scale then that of their competitors.

During the regulated six-week build season in January and February, they made two fully functioning robots. One was sent off to be used for competitions, and the other, the beta bot, stayed right in their workshop, where they continued to make enhancements and improvements, modifications that they would later transfer to their main robot just prior to competing.

But even after the build season ended, their work wasn’t over.

It was that work ethic that earned them a ticket, sponsored by Zebra Technologies, to the prestigious FIRST Robotics World Championships, held last month in Detroit, Michigan.

“Just going to worlds is, like, the greatest thing that’s happened to us, especially in our senior year,” said Anthony LoPresti, 17, a senior and co-president of the team.

Robotics is an extracurricular club at Westhampton Beach High School in which students in grades nine through 12 work together to build a robot that is able to complete a task assigned to the teams by the FIRST Robotics Competition, the league that the Hurricanes compete in. This year, the team competed in two regional competitions before competing in the Daly Division at the FIRST Robotics World Championships.

Anthony, who is in charge of operating the elevator on the robot, manages the team alongside co-president Emily Jaquin, 18, vice president Bjorn Christensen, 17, and mechanical officer Maxwell Gehrig, 17. The four are all graduating in June with plans to pursue degrees in engineering, and all said that their participation in robotics influenced that decision.

“Engineering is really the common factor around here,” Emily said, laughing. “But robotics really gave me a lot of confidence, and it’s the reason why I’m even going into engineering in college.”

After joining the team in their freshman year, Emily, Anthony and Maxwell all said they fell in love with the club and instantly knew that they found a place where they could pursue their passions and gain hands-on experience. When Bjorn joined a year later, they put their heads together and got to work.

The four have come a long way from their initial days of observing the coaches and upperclassmen. Now, they run the show.

“We are all very important members of the team—we all play a huge role outside of our presidential roles,” said Anthony, who plans to study robotic engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts.

“Yeah,” Bjorn, the team’s drive coach, responded. “I’ve spent a ton of time with the team, and it’s been a really big part of my life these past few years.”

On top of brainstorming designs and strategies, the four seniors were personally involved in assembling each piece of their robot, using everything from door hinges to dog leashes to bring it all together.

With the help of six other graduating seniors on the team, the officers helped teach underclassmen how to assemble parts from nothing but scrap metal and worked with the entire team to decide on which designs and prototypes to use.

Before deciding on a final plan, the group scrapped nearly 20 different blueprints and, once building began, Anthony said that the team took the robot apart hundreds of times in an effort to perfect each area of the machine.

“We touch every single part on our robot,” said Emily, who will begin studying at Cornell University this fall. “We really pride ourselves on having it very student run.”

When the team does run into problems, their coaches, Andrew Lockwood, a parent and volunteer coach, who is a senior vice president of P.W. Grosser Consulting, an environmental engineering firm, and Tony Kryl, a technology education teacher at the school, give them advice. But at the end of the day, it’s up to the students to make the decisions.

“We have all the students pitch their ideas and brainstorm different prototypes, and then they’ll give us their professional opinion, and say, ‘Oh, I would’ve gone with this, or I would’ve done this differently,’ even if it’s not what we ended up going with,” explained Maxwell, who accepted a yearly $7,000 FIRST Robotics Scholarship from Clarkson University, where he will be studying mechanical and aeronautical engineering this fall.

For Mr. Kryl, who has been involved with robotics for the past 17 years, and has been a coach at Westhampton Beach for the past six, the team’s dedication and commitment is both impressive and inspiring.

“It really became their passion, because it’s related to things they’re going into,” Mr. Kryl said. “It was a tough battle, one of the toughest in the competition, but I’m so proud of how far they came. It was an awesome experience for them.”

The team placed 59th in the Daly Division at the championship competition, which was held from April 24 to 28 at the Cobo Center in Detroit.

At the championships, the team was one of 68 teams in their division and 409 teams in the entire FIRST Robotics Competition. In two days, the team played in 10 qualifier matches but did not score high enough to continue.

In the very first qualifying match, the Hurricanes competed against teams from Michigan and Toronto that later went on to win the championships.

“We had a little bit of bad luck because in our first match the two other robots in our alliance didn’t work,” according to Bjorn, who plans to take a gap year in Denmark after graduating, and later hopes to study at Stony Brook University. “One robot was disabled, and the other one fell over, so it was basically us versus three other teams.”

Although it was an emotional loss, Anthony said the experience is one that he will never forget. “We’re leaps and bounds ahead of other people because we have this experience,” he said.

Prior to competing in the world championships, the team placed among the top teams at their regional competitions at Hofstra University, in Hempstead, and California University of Pennsylvania, in Pittsburgh.

“It’s a lot of effort,” Mr. Lockwood said. “The kids put in anywhere from 240 to 500 hours of work.”

Although the work was hard, the team is more than just a club or a competition—its members form an incredible bond.

“I’ve made lifelong friends here, and I know that I’m going to come back here on every single break I have from college to help the underclassmen fulfill their roles on the team,” Emily said. “It’s a family, it really is.”

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I am extremely proud of the accomplishments of this team. The robot is simply the means, the true lessons are those spoken about here; the ability to work together, problem solve, make mistakes and learn from them. These students are dedicated and committed, they have found their passion and found their ciche. They are part of an international family.
By panz (4), quogue on May 8, 18 9:41 PM
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