BEACON FALLS — This is the first year Woodland Regional High School has a robotics team but that didn’t stop them from having a 6-2 competition record and placing 14th out of about 100 teams at the 2012 VEX Robotics World Championships in Anaheim, Calif.
The team received an excellence award on March 3 at the VEX Robotics New England Championship in Worcester, Mass. and was the only high school to receive this top award. Because of their placement in the New England championships, the team had a bid to go to world championships in California — an opportunity they did not pass up.
“They started off with no skills, worked their way up to getting an excellence award at VEX and made it to 14th in world competition,” said Mark Mierzejewski, the team’s faculty advisor. “Slowly and steadily they improved their design … it was a learning experience.”
The Woodland robotics team, called Team Impulse, was formed in September 2011 and is comprised of nine team members — eight seniors and one freshman. They are overseen by Mierzejewski, the creator of Team Impulse and a physics and astronomy teacher at Woodland. Before becoming a Woodland teacher four years ago, Mierzejewski was a teacher at Kennedy High School where he taught for 19 years and served as the Kennedy robotics team’s faculty advisor.
Teams competing in VEX are given a new universal challenge every year and the teams must build a robot that will best suit the rules of the game. This goal of year’s game, called “Gateway,” was to manipulate the robot to get the most balls and barrels into nine goals in the competition arena. The team with the most items scored won.
The team practiced at least two hours every day after school leading up to the world competition, designing, tweaking and learning how to control their bot.
Woodland senior and Team Impulse coach Zach Blum said the team often used a trial-and-error approach to construct their winning robot. The team tried many designs before completing the bot as it appeared in California’s competition, where software and design improvements were prohibited.
“We would come up with an idea and sometimes it would work and other times it would fail,” Blum said. “Then we would come up with something better.”
The four-day 2012 VEX Robotics World Championships took place on April 18 to April 21 during the school’s April vacation. The team arrived in California a day before the competitions began and left a day after but little time was left for sightseeing.
In California, the team members woke up just after 6 a.m. every day to make repairs to their bot, practice and compete. The students also engaged in “scouting,” or assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the robots of other competing teams to determine how to best utilize their own bot.
“California was stressful, but in a good way,” said Dan Lyons, the team’s backup driver. “Teamwork was very important.”
After its successful season, the robot currently resides in Team Impulse’s practice room — a custodial closet at Woodland transformed into a robot arena. The arena Team Impulse uses to practice is the same as the ones used in VEX competitions. The 12- by-12-foot arena features a rubbery floor and clear siding panels and is valued at $1,000, according to Mierzejewski.
Mierzejewski said he hopes the robot can be left intact as a reminder of the team’s success this year although it is possible the parts, estimated at $2,500, may need to be harvested and reused in upcoming years. A boxy and complex system of metal, wires and traction wheels, the 18-by-18-inch robot holds sentimental value for the team, Mierzejewski said.
With support from Principal Arnold Frank and interim Superintendent of Schools Tim James and extensive fundraising, team members had to pay only part of the cost of the trip. With round-trip airfare, food and lodging, the cost of the trip for Mierzejewski and the team totaled around $9,000.
“The school really supported us and they wanted us to be able to go,” Mierzejewski said. “Half the trip was fundraised and support was given from the school.”
To raise funds for their California trip, Team Impulse held a raffle for which computer equipment was the prize. The team also hosted a “Meet the Bot Night,” where donors could meet and have a turn driving the robot.
“It was a way to raise money but also show off what we do,” senior Jacob Hawes said.
The team members said they’d grown very close after spending so much time working and competing together and Mierzejewski said the year was memorable.
“I wouldn’t be taking 300 hours of my life if I didn’t think the kids weren’t getting something out of it,” Mierzejewski said. “They’ve learned skills that they will be taking to college with them … lifelong skills with real-world applications.”