By MICHAEL NUNES
SOUTH RIVER — One usually imagines competitive robots to be built by seasoned engineers with decades of experience.
For the students in South River High School’s Robotics Club, who competed at the Mid-Atlantic Regional District Event at Mount Olive High School in Flanders on March 5 and 6, they are well ahead of the curve.
“It’s a challenge, like a big, expensive Lego set,” said Mark Podeszfinski, the president of the Rambotics club, a team of around 20 students who took six weeks to build and program the runner-up robot in the competition.
Robotics clubs from around the state, who were put into teams of three, faced off in a game called Stronghold, which put their creations to the test.
The goal of the game was to have one’s robot cross the opposing team’s defenses and shoot balls into the enemy tower. At the end of the game, robots who were able to scale the tower were awarded extra points. Victory went to the team with the most points at the end of the allotted time.
There were 39 teams at the competition.
For students, the rewards of their weeks of hard work are worth all the time and effort put into the grueling task of building and programming the robot, which costs around $2,000.
“It’s like how people like woodworking and painting and writing. You feel good about yourself when you see something you’ve worked hard on and made yourself,” Podeszfinski said.
The robotics club was started four years ago by high school physics teacher Ed Butts, who passed away in 2014, and Charlie Wang, who was a volunteer for FIRST Robotics.
“I thought, ‘Why don’t we bring this into the local school system.’ … I love the program and I thought that no matter what it would have a great impact on the students,” Wang said.
Students don’t just learn from success, according to Wang, but also from mistakes they make along the way when it comes to building the robot.
“The point of this program is not to win the game. The point of this program is how to fail when you’re building the robot. You have to learn how to fail. From the failure, you learn how real world engineering works.”
The process for building the robot includes brainstorming the actual design.
“STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) is really the future for students coming out of high school into college and beyond,” said Mario Fronzoni, a retired engineer who mentors the team.
“I think this program really is important. It teaches the kids concepts and then it allows them to put those concepts into practice.”
That sentiment was echoed by other mentors who were impressed at how far along students came during their time with the team.
“These kids are so smart it’s scary. I listen to them and I’m in awe by the things that they know that are just commonplace for them,” said Phyllis Fronzoni, who helps to mentor the team along with her husband Mario.
For Valerie Swercheck, a biology teacher at the high school school as well as the lead mentor and adviser for the team, the club is preparing students for the future.
“This is the future. There was a statistic that the majority of seniors graduating this year will spend their careers in jobs that haven’t even been created yet,” Swercheck said.
“If all they ever learn is what we already know, then they’ll never get beyond where we are right now. If we give them the skills to problem-solve, then they could do whatever comes their way in the future.”
The team has another event this weekend. The goal is to make it to the district championship held at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.