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FIRST Robotics Competition Attracts Somers Students To STEM

The Bionic Gaels have 13 members, who are students at Kennedy Catholic High School. Photo Credit:
Laurel Higham (holding trophy) and the Bionic Gaels at the 2013 Connecticut State Championship. Photo Credit:
A panel of judges evaluates the Bionic Gaels' Robot. Photo Credit:
The Bionic Gales did a demonstration at the Microsoft Store in White Plains. Photo Credit:
The Bionic Gaels at the 2013 Hudson Valley FIRST Technology Challenge championship. Photo Credit:

SOMERS, N.Y. – Robots have taken over the lives of 19 Somers and North Salem students, which Kennedy Catholic junior Laurel Higham said is a good thing.

Higham and her father, Joe, started a team at Kennedy Catholic High School in Somers that designs, builds and programs a robot each year to compete two-on-two with other teams in the FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC). FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was founded in 1989 to encourage students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

“It’s practically my life now, so I don’t know if I have any other hobbies that would lead me anywhere else at this point,” Higham said. “I didn’t expect it at first, but FIRST has completely overtaken my life.”

A former participant who graduated last year has gone on to the U.S. Naval Academy to study cyber warfare. Higham said her dream school is MIT, where she wants to study robotics and artificial intelligence.

Among many age groups and levels of competition under the FIRST umbrella, FTC started about seven years ago to make the competition more accessible. Like Highman’s team, the Bionic Gaels , North Salem High School junior Daniel Lubitz’s team, The Tech Wise Guys, joined the Hudson Valley FTC chapter three years ago.

Teams in the Hudson Valley FTC compete in area qualifying tournaments to move on to a regional championship at Pace University in February. For the first time this year, there are four “super-regional” championships, and then the national championship in St. Louis.

In all competitions, teams earn points for their robot’s ability to complete tasks, like placing blocks in crates. A panel of judges also rates the teams’ design journal, courtesy, sportsmanship and community outreach.

“I’m really into building things physically, as well as computer science and programming,” Lubitz said. “FIRST Robotics is pretty much the perfect activity for me.”

The Bionic Gaels are hosting a qualifying tournament Saturday at Kennedy Catholic, which automatically advances them into the championship at Pace Feb. 16. The Tech Wise Guys will have to compete to earn their spot, along with 23 other teams. They include teams from Tarrytown, Yonkers, Pleasantville, Pelham, Rye Brook, two from Yorktown Heights, Greenwich, Conn. and others.

"If anyone of these kids considered [science, technology, engineering or math] as a career I would have considered all of my involvement a success," Joe said.

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