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“Robotics is Life” – The Little Robot that Could

NEIA Robotics is in the playoffs... as a rookie team!

Back in the fall, the Robotics team at NEIA was just an idea. A pitch. A presentation. Three students—Gabe, Sam, and Jacob—had a vision of what this program could be. They advocated for themselves, they presented their idea, and they founded the first Robotics team at NEIA.

Now, six months later, the NEIA Robotics team is in the New England FIRST District Championship.

Before we get to the team, there are two NEIA community members who have to be spotlighted for their contributions. Anna Schonwald has gone above and beyond as the team’s mentor. Anna doesn’t want to be one of the mentors at competitions that you might see pushing kids out of the way and fixing the robot themselves. She prefers to be a facilitator, a guide, someone who helps them be the best team they can be. She will take no credit for the students’ work, but don’t be mistaken: her dedication has been essential to the program’s success. Additionally, it is no exaggeration to say that the team wouldn’t exist without the passion and generosity of one of our school’s founders, Jean Jones.

“Jean Jones is our biggest fan,” Anna said. “This team wouldn’t exist without her. She’s the one who saw the dedication of the students and invested in them. And she’s been at both of our competitions, sitting there for many hours, cheering for us. Back when we didn’t have as many people cheering in the stands.”

Back in March, an event at Bridgewater State University was the team’s first-ever competition. They learned a lot from that experience and spent the following three weeks tweaking and improving their robot. Over Spring Break, some team members pedaled their bikes to campus to get in a few extra hours of work time. Then, last week, at Worchester Polytechnic Institute, the team showed out early, winning again and again, spending a lot of the first day in second place. On Sunday, the NEIA community showed up in a big way, with signs and pom-poms. While the Night Owls eventually dropped out of second place, they did something relatively improbable: they made playoffs as a rookie team! And they didn’t just squeak by. The cut-off to advance was 96th place.

They finished 59th.

So, this week, the Robotics team left on Wednesday for the New England FIRST Robotics Championship in West Springfield, MA. Our students, back on campus, have been putting the Twitch stream on the big television in The Hub to watch and root for their classmates.

Let’s talk about the team. NEIA Robotics is made up of the following students: Sam, Jacob, Gabe, Nolan, Nox, Cade, Vishnu, Darshan, Jayden, Olive, Lila, Max H., Garon, and Jesse. This is an incredible group. They are professional and kind and singularly dedicated. They live and breathe Robotics. “Robotics is life,” has become their mantra. Everyone does their part, working on what interests them the most. They have someone scouting other teams (to help compete against and choose teammates), they have some people working on the software and coding that controls the robot, and they have technicians who handle the building and maintenance.

On Tuesday, they were making last-minute changes to their robot, moving their gyroscope to a different location because a different device was interfering with its performance. It’s a fun, dynamic scene, a joy to watch. Innovators of all grade levels gather in the same room, three people tinkering on the robot at the same time. This robot has seen many, many adjustments since the “build season” began back in January. They joked that they were on version “100-point-7.” There are four stickers on the robot: a NASA logo (as part of a grant they earned), a NEIA PIN, a Perry the Platypus decal, and an “I HEART JEAN JONES” sticker. They described competitions as “stressful chaos, but very friendly.”

“So many times other teams have come over and helped us when we have issues, even if we’re competing against them later,” Jacob said. “One time, a team absolutely full-speed slammed into our robot during a round, and two seconds after the match they came up to us and were like, ‘Hey, did we break anything? If so, can we help fix it?’ So that’s really cool. It’s just an incredibly nice community.”

When asked what they wanted out of the Championships this week, they all gave the same answer: “Worlds.” That’s the next step: the World Championships at the end of April. They may have already exceeded expectations for a rookie team, but they’re not satisfied.

This team won’t quit.

UPDATE: NEIA Robotics won “Rookie All Stars” at the New England Championship and is going to World Championships in Houston, Texas. 

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