When she heard her team name called as a winner, Skyla Azaharie’s first reaction was shock.
Pure, pure shock.
The Mineola First Robotics Competition Team went to the FRC Regionals in Rochester on March 18 just hoping to have a fun experience.
They had spent hundreds of hours over the past few months building “Ghost” a robot that could move independently and perform certain tasks. And after a few days spent marveling at other teams’ projects, the Mineola kids were prepared to go home and apply what they’ve learned for future years.
But then, the judges announced Mineola as a winner and a team that got to advance to the FIRST World Championship on April 19-23 in Houston.
Now, armed with a $5,000 entry fee paid for by NASA, a group of two dozen Mineola robotics students and their coaches are headed for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“We had no idea and no thought we were going to win, so all of our faces were just stunned when we found out,” Azeharie said. “It was the most amazing moment.”
The FRC team at Mineola was formed in 2018, under the direction of co-coaches Kuri DiFede and Andrew Woolsey, and slowly became a hit with students.
“This was our superintendent Dr. (Michael) Nagler’s vision, to have a group of kids who really were interested in technology and building have a chance to work on some special things,” DiFede said. “We started with eight kids, now we have 30 on the team.”
The actual process of building “Ghost” began in early January, when the rules and instructions were given out by the national FIRST judges (FIRST stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) for teams across America.
This year’s challenge involved building a robot that could pick up traffic cones and beach balls, and place them in certain areas.
“Until we get the assignment, we train new people on the team and work on practice robots,” said sophomore Julia Manevitz. “We look at what we did last year, we work on our swerve drive (which enables a robot to move and work in all directions) and just try to be ready to go when the project is revealed.”
Starting from scratch, and running into supply chain issues, the Mineola team raced to finish in time to present “Ghost” in regional competitions, including one at Hofstra University and the one in Rochester, where they were selected as the team worthy of the “Engineering Inspiration award,” given to the squad who most “advances respect and appreciation for engineering within the school and community.”
“This is so much about the students and their drive and determination,” Woolsey said. “Kuri and I are along for the ride. These kids take leadership roles, and tell us ‘we need to buy this’ or “why don’t we try doing it this way.'” They’re so devoted and hard-working.”
“We spend a lot of hours in the winter working on this, but we love it,” Manevitz said. “A lot of our friends wonder where we’re spending all of our time doing this, but it’s so much fun and we have such a good group.”
Manevitz and Azeharie, a junior, said the team first built some of the acessories to “Ghost” like an elevator and a cascading lift, and then built a wooden model of the robot to work off of and study.
The team is as diverse as can be; DiFede said the squad speaks 13 different languages, and has made outreach to other communities a major part of their work. They’re currently helping start an FTC Outreach team in Italy, for example.
“I love being in the community and showing others about how much fun robotics can be,” Azeharie said. “We are trying to reach out to communities (in Mineola) that may not have access to learning coding and doing things like this.”
In Houston on April 19, the Mineola squad will be competing against teams from all over the world. NASA has paid the entry fee (the team hopes to tour the NASA headquarters while in Houston) but the school district and students are responsible for travel and hotel costs.
“It’s expensive but we’re so grateful the district and community support us,” DiFede said. “These kids have such a passion for doing this and we’re lucky to be able to show them experiences like going to a world championship.”