North Fork Profiles

How Southold’s team became an ‘Inspiration’ in Robotics

Southold Robotics celebrates its invitation to the FIRST Robotics world championship later this month. (Credit: PRMG New York)
Southold Robotics celebrates its invitation to the FIRST Robotics world championship later this month. (Credit: PRMG New York)

Sitting inside the conference room at Southold High School’s main office Tuesday, four members of the school’s robotics program and a pair of advisers attempted to explain the club’s success.

Bob Gammon, the father of one robotics team member and an adviser the past two seasons, said the best formula to describe it is E=R.

“Effort equals results,” he explained.

That type of wisdom might seem like common sense on most teams, but this is robotics, where every bit of information must be questioned and broken down to its core.

“[E=R] has actually been disproved,” said David Gammon, his son, a senior at the school who has competed in robotics since junior high.

“For example,” added classmate Peter Fouchet, also a senior and in his sixth year with the program, “if you’re manually
turning a screw, that’s going to take more effort, but will it …”

“I meant mental effort,” Mr. Gammon interjected before the teens could shoot down his statement completely.

That sort of hairsplitting conversation is the type of engagement Southold High School principal William Galati said the robotics program encourages in its students. And that’s exactly why school administrators stand firmly behind the program, known as Team R.I.C.E. 870.

“Robotics teaches critical thinking, collaboration, communication, leadership and ownership skills,” said the principal, who previously served as science director in another district. “Those are skills you take with you in life.”

In Southold, those five skills have led the robotics program to a level of success rarely achieved by schools of a similar size. On Saturday, the program was awarded the Engineering Inspiration Award at the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Long Island Regional Competition at Hofstra University. The prestigious honor includes an invitation to the FIRST world championships in St. Louis, Mo., later this month and financial assistance from NASA covering the event’s $5,000 entry fee.

The world championships will be held April 27-30 at The Dome at America’s Center, which until recently was home to the NFL’s former St. Louis Rams franchise.


Want to help?

If you’d like to help defray the cost of sending 30 students to the world championships in St. Louis, mail a check payable to SHS Robotics to P.O. Box 470, Southold, NY 11971.


Team R.I.C.E. 870's robot in action at a packed Hofstra University arena Saturday. (Credit: PRMG New York)
Team R.I.C.E. 870’s robot in action at a packed Hofstra University arena Saturday. (Credit: PRMG New York)

This marks the third time in seven years Southold has reached the competition’s highest level, but the first time the team has won this particular award.

“It’s quite an honor,” said program adviser Christine Schade, a math teacher at the high school and the mother of a team member. “The team was absolutely thrilled.”

“Southold Robotics is on the map,” she said.

Judges choose the Engineering Inspiration Award winner after inspecting all the teams’ robots and asking questions of team members. Because so many of Southold’s team members participated in the build and knew every facet of the team’s responsibilities, the judges were impressed with the program, Mr. Gammon said.

“These kids were able to answer every question the judges had, even providing explanations for all the follow-up questions,” he said.

Team R.I.C.E. 870 entered the finals of the regional competition ranked third out of 51 teams, but finished just short in the end. Competing in the best-of-three finals in an alliance with Patchogue-Medford and Cold Spring Harbor high schools, team members said they believed they had a great shot at winning it all.

The alliance dropped the first round of the finals and needed to come from behind in the second. But it ultimately fell in the last round to an alliance consisting of Marista Pio — from Novo Hamburgo, Brazil — Sachem and William Floyd high schools.

“We were so bummed,” said drive team member Alex Lincoln, a senior in his second year with the Southold robotics program.

But news of the Engineering Inspiration Award turned that bitter feeling into a celebration. Team safety captain Julia Schade, also a senior in her second year with the program, said the invitation to St. Louis moved her to tears.

“It was just so great,” she said. “We all have become very close and we work so well together.”

The Long Island regionals are organized by School-Business Partnerships of Long Island Inc., which was founded more than 30 years ago with the goal of cultivating partnerships between local high schools and businesses that would provide students with practical experience and curriculum development and help the business community mentor and grow its future workforce, according to the organization.

Before the regional contest, teams are given just six weeks to create and practice with their robots, which are built to fit specific parameters and suit the type of competition, which changes each year.

Sometimes a silver medal is best, like when you still win an invitation to the world championships and have your entry fee paid for you. (Credit: Grant Parpan)
Sometimes a silver medal is best, like when you still win an invitation to the world championships and have your entry fee paid for you. (Credit: Grant Parpan)

Build team members — Southold has about eight — then dedicate roughly seven hours a night, even on weekends, to construct the robot. This year, they even built a second robot to practice with between competitions, Mr. Gammon said.

This year’s challenge, First Stronghold, is based on a popular medieval castle-conquering and battle-strategy game. Robots gain points by incapacitating defenses and scoring boulders through goals in the opposition’s tower.

Southold said its robot had success this year because it was built with defensive capabilities and not just to be on the attack. That said, it is still quite the scoring machine, netting the fourth-highest score in a single round of any FIRST robotics competition in the world this year, Ms. Schade said.

“These kids built one of, if not the best robot in the [Long Island] competition this year,” Mr. Gammon said.

Before competing at Hofstra, Southold took its robot on the road to the Buckeye Regional in Cleveland last month, where it also performed at a high level, winning six of 11 matches and reaching the quarterfinals. David Gammon said the team was ranked 65th out of more than 6,000 teams in the world following the trip to Ohio.

To put the success of the Southold High School robotics program fully into perspective, one must consider the many obstacles a small school faces in the world of robotics, team members said.

With a graduating class of fewer than 80 students, the population from which the Southold club can draw is sparse — though it has expanded somewhat now that Greenport students are eligible to join the program. Other schools at competitions might have more than 1,000 students per grade. While Southold has about 30 team members, other schools have more than 75. That can be an advantage for a larger school — not just in building and programming a robot, but in raising money supporting the program.

Funding for a program that costs an estimated $40,000 each school year can be limited in a small town, team members explained. Other districts have major engineering and technology firms nearby that can serve as corporate sponsors and mentors.

For a program in a rural community like Southold to compete at a high level, support from the business community — as well as school administrators, who are adding a coding course to the curriculum next year — is essential. To that end, students were able to secure funding from more than 25 local businesses this year, including its primary corporate sponsor, Miller Environmental Group of Calverton.

Even the owners of North Fork Shack, a Route 48 restaurant that hasn’t even opened yet, stepped up and provided the program with a check.

“That kind of support is incredible,” Ms. Schade said. “This is a true community victory. From the students to the administrators to local businesses, when this team wins, the community wins, because the community supports us.”

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