Photo Caption: Newton High School has granted varsity status to its robotics program, complete with a patch of a Talon robot.
August 11, 2014
By Cassandra Mainiero, Picatinny Public Affairs
PICATINNY ARSENAL, N.J. (August 11, 2014)--Wearing a traditional leather-sleeved varsity jacket, a student walking down the halls of a local high school might be assumed to be a member of the school's football or basketball team.
At Newton High School in Sussex County, N.J., however, one such jacket has an unusual patch on the back: a Talon robot, used by the military for missions such as search and discovery and the safe movement and disposal of explosives.
Newton High School is the first public high school in New Jersey to earn a varsity designation for a robotics team, and the third high school in the state after two private schools that achieved that distinction earlier.
The Newton High School team has a long association with the U.S. Army's Picatinny Arsenal, where members of the Newton robotics team took turns maneuvering the Talon robot when they toured the arsenal in 2009.
Newton's robotics team donned this patch onto varsity jackets approximately a year after they competed in the 2010 FIRST finals in Atlanta, Ga. FIRST, an international robotics competition for high school students, is an acronym that means "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology."
Its purpose is to encourage students to be science and technology leaders by providing programs and mentors that cultivate science, engineering and technology skills as well as inspire innovation, confidence, communication, and leadership.
Each year, teams of high school students spend six weeks designing and building robots that weigh no more than 120 pounds. Then, during the FIRST Robotics Competition, the robots compete in events such as basketball, bridge balancing, golf, frisbee, and other sports.
In 2010, Newton's robotics team, officially called Aperture Team 3142, made its way through the initial competition, earned the Rookie All Star Award, and took its first trip to the International FIRST championship.
"After doing it [the robotics team] for a year, I said 'We do as much, if not more, than any other varsity team. We work all year around. We believe these outreach efforts have earned us this distinction of wearing the varsity jackets,'" said James Hofmann, a technology teacher at Halsted Middle School and a robotics coach at Newton High School. Hofmann founded and coaches Newton's FIRST Lego League, and the FIRST Robotics Competition team.
ENGINEERING A ROBOTICS TEAM
Hofmann's interest in creating a robotics team started in April 2008 when two Halsted Middle School students offered to help Hofmann run a two-week summer camp for robotics. During the camp, middle school students studied science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) concepts through FIRST LEGO League projects. FIRST LEGO League is a project where students create robots made with LEGO kits and compete against other teams.
The experience inspired Hofmann to consider starting a middle school robotics team. He had also attended a FIRST Robotics Competition, a New York State regional event, at New York City's Jacob Javits Center. There, he spoke with robotics students and their team mentors and learned that students used the same formulas and calculations that are taught in textbooks.
But when students were able to apply what they learned through hands-on activities, their attitude toward math and science classes takes on a new dimension. Hofmann subsequently developed a high school robotics team at Newton High School, encouraging both girls and boys from freshmen to senior classes to participate.
However, obtaining funding was a challenge. Building a robot can be expensive and most FIRST competitions required entry fees and travel expenses.
Picatinny Arsenal would play a role in nurturing the robotics program.
Before Hofmann formed Newton High School's robotics team, he had met Ed Petersen, a program manager for Picatinny's STEM program. In 2009, Hofmann approached Petersen and the arsenal's STEM outreach office to ask for technical help with his team and a potential sponsorship by the National Department of Defense Education Program.
Picatinny Arsenal's STEM office agreed to help. Not only did it provide a $6,500 grant but also the knowledge of Shah Dabiri, a technology manager for Picatinny's STEM, who became the team's mentor.
By 2010, the Newton High School robotics team made it to the FIRST final. The team also won the "Innovation in Control" award and the "Engineering Inspiration Award" at the district level, which advanced the team to the Mid-Atlantic-Robotics Regional Championship in April 2012.
At Temple University in Philadelphia, Pa., the team competed against the best 67 teams in the region and earned the Engineering Inspiration Award again, the second most prestigious award available to first robotics competition teams, which propelled them another International FIRST championship in St. Louis, Mo.
"Mentors serve as technical assistants and provide as a continuous link between engineers and students," said Dabiri. "They keep students focused and ensure their projects are designed parameters and safe.
"Every scientist and engineer who works at Picatinny Arsenal has taken hours of training to become acquisition experts, learned how to better organize and run our integrated product development teams, and have either obtained our Six Sigma certification or have taken classes on risk assessments," Dabiri added.
"This ability to organize, open lines of communication, and assess risks is passed on to the students through hands-on mentorship and extends to the field of play as well as the students daily lives."
GAINING VARSITY STATUS
Despite the team's initial success, Hofmann said obtaining varsity status was difficult.
In its first two years, students not involved in the robotics program sometimes made jokes about the program in the hallway. Meanwhile, the team's experiences, competition, and community service set the stage for achieving success.
Hofmann recognized that he needed to elevate the team and put it on par with the school's athletic teams to attract more interest. By connecting with members of the community, Hofmann and his team encouraged business members to support their endeavor.
A steady stream of letters flowed into the offices of the principal and Newton's Board of Education, urging varsity status for the robotics team.
At first, Newton High School's administrators were tentative. No other local schools recognized robotics with a varsity status. However, in March 2011, the team received the principal's assurance that he would support their efforts.
By May 2011, the team was recognized with a varsity status and its members received their jackets. The team also created Talon robot pins, which were given to the most valuable members, team leaders, sponsors, and mentors, including Dabiri and Petersen.
It took some time and effort, but eventually permission was granted for the use of the copyrighted image of the Talon robot from QinetiQ North America, the manufacturer of the Talon line of robots.
"Our sustained efforts of outreach and community service have contributed a huge part to our success," said Hofmann. "Our sponsors are constantly kept in the loop and made aware of our events, efforts, and competitions while some great students rise to the occasion and take advantage of the opportunity.
"Commitment is not a word most high school students know the meaning of, but with Newton's robotics team it is a combination of this leadership and opportunity that helps our program become so successful."
PICATINNY GOES ROBOTIC
Since 2009, the Picatinny Arsenal STEM office has helped 16 FIRST Robotics completion teams, five FIRST technology challenge teams, and five FIRST Lego League teams. Employees from the Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center also mentored eight of the teams that entered the FIRST Robotics Competition in 2009.
Throughout this partnership with Picatinny, students learn basic principles of mechanics and robotics through the manipulations of optical rail structures they use to construct the team robot.
Students also use LabView, C++, and RobotC software to program their creations to move and operate autonomously and explore computer-aided drafting and design, business, and marketing to introduce and develop the skills needed to create and bring an innovative product to market.
"The robotics team shows students valuable skills--engineering, communication, marketing skills," said Hofmann "One day, we'd like to see every school use the Talon on a varsity jacket."
FIRST AND STEM
FIRST was established in 1989 by Dean Kamen, an inventor, entrepreneur and advocate for science and technology. Kamen is best known for having invented the portable dialysis machine, the Segway and the Luke prosthetic arm.
FIRST was founded in 1989 to inspire young people's interest and participation in science and technology. The non-profit charity designs accessible, innovative programs that motivate young people to pursue education and career opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math.