Robots compete for Science


By Kate Pastor

There’s nothing robotic about designing an 81-pound machine that can play a mean game of breakaway, and nothing automatic about conceiving of an all-girls team doing the heavy lifting.

But count on the Fe (the periodic table’s symbol for iron) Maidens to challenge norms by building a bot that plays ball. They are not your average group of high school students — even at Bronx Science.

“If you look around, you see mostly men working on the robots,” said Jennifer Silvestre, a senior on the team in charge of public relations, wearing safety goggles in the bustling shop area of the Javits Center between rounds in the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) competition on Sunday.

Along with more than 60 teams that took part in the regional round, the Fe Maidens rolled out the product of their six-week “build period” and started to play breakaway, a soccer-like game that requires kicking a ball into a team’s home goal.

On either side of a 27- by 54-foot field, with two ramps spanning its width and dividing it into three zones, the three-team alliances took their positions. Grasping giant joysticks, they rolled out their creations.

The first aim was for the alliances to make goals on their team’s side of the field. Each time they did, they scored a point. To earn two points with one move, the robots could lift themselves onto a tower extending from each ramp, and robots that managed to hang on hooks jutting up from other robots could earn three.

This was the complicated version of breakaway each team had designed their robot to win.

“Every year there’s a new game. Every year there’s new needs. So you have to change it to meet those needs,” explained tenth-grader Nicole Calace, a team programmer.

Mindy Chen, an eleventh grader in charge of construction, said the team began with metal shaped in a 90-degree angle for the base, adding wheels, each attached to a motor, and then a tank drive.

An arm jutting up from the center of the machine was connected to the motor by a steel rope. A drum, covered by a cut up yoga mat and powered by a Fisher Price motor, could suck the ball inward, and a circular kicker could launch the ball into the team’s goal.

Though it had all the right stuff, Dorothy Fibiger, one of the team’s mentors who used to be a teacher and is now enrolled in a graduate program for chemistry at Brown University, noted what she called a “hilarious” glitch.

“It’s center of gravity is so low that when we go over the ramps, we tip over every time and then it bounces right back up,” she said, noting that the crowd would gasp in disbelief as the robot teetered and got quiet once it had stabilized, revving up for another try over the hump.

Despite the oddity, the Maidens hard work has paid off on and off the court.

At Bronx Science, the team which began in 2006 with 14 members and three mentors has more than doubled. It now boasts 33 female students, with additional sponsors from large companies and community organizations.

When the team was left without a workspace in a crowded school this fall, the members advocated until one was found.

In last weekend’s New York City regional robotics competition, the award-winning Maidens proved victorious, too. They will now head to Atlanta to participate in the national championship rounds. The Bronx Science unisex SciBorgs Robotics Team was a finalist in the regional as well.

“It’s as exciting as any sporting event that I’ve ever been to,” said Maura Flynn, whose daughter, sophomore Francesca Arcidiacono, is a Maiden.

“I think it really empowers them. It shows them that girls can be electronic engineers,” she said.

Her younger 13-year old daughter, Theresa Arcidiacono, who will start high school next year, skipped the practice rounds because she thought it would be a bore. But she attended Saturday’s matches and couldn’t stay away Sunday.

“If they don’t have a team at my school, I really want to think about starting one,” she said.