December 20th, 2006
Since the dawn of modern technology, scientists and laymen alike have been captivated by the idea of artificial intelligence. Naturally, this fascination has its very own outlet at Stuyvesant, an institution already famed for its attention to the sciences. The Robotics Club, founded seven years ago, has since developed a loyal following.
One of the main focuses of the club is preparing for and competing in the annual For the Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) competition. A contest which started 16 years ago, this event currently hosts about 1000 teams from all over the country every year. Senior and President of Engineering for the club Polina Danilyuk said, “Though it started as a small venue, FIRST has grown exponentially as funding and the number of corporate sponsors has increased over the years.”
Every year, a new challenge is released by FIRST to participating teams. On January 6, the club expects to receive the specifics of this year’s assignment, after which they will then have six weeks to complete it. Last year’s robot, named Joshua, had to be able to shoot balls into a hoop and retrieve them.
The club’s journey to and experiences at FIRST make up some of the year’s most exciting events. There are two rounds of competition: on the regional level and on the national level. The regional competition which Stuy participates in takes place in the New York area, while the national competition is in Atlanta, Georgia.
Every year on Wednesday night or Thursday morning, the team arrives and on Friday afternoon the matches take place that qualify teams for competition. In each of these matches six teams are pitted against each other, three on each side. On Saturday morning, the qualifying matches are finished and the eight top seeded teams each pick two other teams for their final alliances. Then come the quarterfinals, semifinals and finals where, out of three teams, one final winner is chosen.
“We’re usually one of the big New York teams, but teams in Michigan, for example, are much fiercer. Nationally, we are not known,” said Danilyuk. She explained Michigan’s success by pointing out most of the teams’ proximity to important vehicle manufacturing centers from which they can obtain a constant supply of materials and engineers to help them.
The lead-up to such a prestigious competition requires a lot of preparation. To streamline the process, the Robotics Club relies on teamwork, splitting up into three different main sections—Engineering, Programming and Marketing—which all perform specific tasks to contribute to the finished product.
Senior and President of Marketing Nathan Keyes is responsible for fundraising the $20,000-$30,000 necessary to finance all aspects of the competition. The club’s costs include paying for entry fees, transportation and the materials needed for building the robot.
To get the money needed, the marketing division resorts to several different methods, including a tactic familiar to the student body: the sale of a variety of candy and other food items. They also rely on corporate sponsorship from such large companies as Verizon, D.E. Shaw, Con-Ed and others. The club writes to these sponsors asking for donations, and in return the sponsors will often give them a few thousand dollars. The highest donor each year has the opportunity to name the robot. One of the club’s most involved private sponsors is a man named Larry Gralla, who started his own printing company and is a self-made millionaire. Last year’s robot was named Joshua after Gralla’s baby grandson. Gralla has also named many past robots, including Yvette, and Larry, after himself.
The other sections of the club are Engineering, which deals with the physical aspect of the robot’s construction, and Programming, which builds the robot’s intelligence and teaches it how to deal with the situations of the contest.
The programmers use the C programming language to write their codes, and the engineers build the robots, using raw materials, completely from scratch. Sarah Ketani, a sophomore on the team, said, “Some teams have NASA [National Aeronautic and Space Association] build their robots, but we do everything ourselves.” The team will start out with a kit of parts, which will include motors, electronics and a chassis of aluminum. All the other parts are purchased by the members of the team separately, and gradually put together to form a frame and finally a functioning robot.
Although Robotics may seem departmentalized, in reality the members are strongly bonded. Danilyuk said, “We are a very close-knit team. You can ask anyone here what anyone else’s name is, and they will know. They could even tell you their favorite ice cream flavor.” Such closeness is inevitable when the members of the club spend so much time together. During the intense preparation weeks before the competition, members will stay in school as late as possible, until they are kicked out by the cleaning staff. “We’ll eat breakfast, lunch and dinner here, and come in on Saturdays and Sundays,” said Ketani.
Danilyuk said, “You’re here every day until 10 p.m. and it’s chaos, and then you eat, and then its chaos, and you go home and dream about it, and it all happens again the next day.”
People come to Robotics for different reasons—some may be referred by a friend, others may just be interested in the technology. Anyone is allowed to join, even if they have no previous experience. “If you don’t know what a hammer is, you’ll leave knowing,” said Danilyuk. Although the club is friendly and inclusive, it welcomes its new members in a unique way. “The newbies have to sort a mountain of bolts, which takes hours and hours. That’s one of their first relegated tasks by tradition. It happens in June, as their sort of initiation,” said Danilyuk.
Newcomers and veterans alike share a strong connection with the club, and speak of the special feeling that Robotics gives to them. “There’s the school and there’s everything going on in the school, and then Robotics is a different place,” said Danilyuk. “It’s a club, but it’s got the same sort of adrenaline that you would have on a football field, but it’s caused by running your robot and fixing a last minute glitch.” That is the passion that these members share, whether competing in a national event or working in their cluttered room, the passion to make the figments of their dreams come alive.