The age of robots in education
Robotics Team pictured (left to right): Coach Jaime Canjura, coach Charles Rogener, superintendent Dr. Joseph Giani, Michael Vengroski, Isaiah James, Thomas Miller, Christopher Lannon, Philip Abbate, Jake D’Esposito and board of education president Cheryl A. Felice.

Photos courtesy of the South Country School District

The age of robots in education


No, robots won’t replace teachers anytime soon.

But at Bellport High School, they are engaging with students in the Robotics Club — and earning the students a few big competition titles along the way.

The club’s advisors, technology teachers Charles Rogener and Jaime Canjura, along with the team of five students presented a live demonstration at a board meeting on Feb. 7.

“We’ve got to let the robot come in first,” Rogener said, as an 18-by-18-inch robot entered the board meeting room. Behind it, a line of students followed, controlling its every move from android-powered devices.

Principal Tim Hogan, who introduced the group, noted that this marks the third year of implementing a robotics program at the high school. “We’re very proud of this group,” Hogan said.

The team has already participated in three tech challenges this school year. At the first, a competition at Center Moriches High School in early January, the team came in third place out of 23 participating teams. At the FIRST Tech Challenge held on Jan. 28 at Sewanhaka High School in Floral Park, the group took first place out of 23 teams, which qualified them for the Long Island Championship in Smithtown on Feb. 11.

The team came in second place at the championship. “A ball half rolled off the platform, then went back in place. Had it totally rolled off the platform, we would have won,” said Rogener.

At the board meeting, the students demonstrated how during most competitions, the robot has to work against a two-minute clock to stack boxes, called glyphs, in a boxed frame.

The Clippers’ team used a mechanism akin to a claw to grab the boxes, but as the students pointed out, it can’t be sharp. Points are taken off for any damage to the blocks.

As the students showed the board how the robot functions, Rogener praised the students for their dedication. “We’re a rookie team,” he said. But at a build day with other students in early November, they were the only team with a driving robot at the end of the day. “We walked away with some confidence after that,” Rogener added.

According to the group’s spokesperson, Isaiah James, other students were impressed, too. “They were asking us to send them our plans,” he said, laughing.

Controlled by android devices that aid communication to the robot, students used Java to program the robot. There are two programs: an autonomous program, which allows the robot to operate freely, and a remote-control program, which follows the commands that the students press on the remote control. The robot has two phones, one on it and one connected to the remotes in a console. These phones connect to each other through Bluetooth, students said.

Everything from the wheels to the arm and claw comes from commands written into the program, all developed by the students. “There are a lot of complexities,” he said.

Some components of the robot were also 3-D printed at the school’s technology department and at the home of one team member, who has a 3-D printer at home.

The team numbers 12899, which identify the robot, were 3-D printed along with the consoles that hold the phones as they control the robot’s every move. Within the club, the students refer to the robot affectionately as Robot Steven. “We had a member, Stephen Coster, who moved in December, so he could not be at the competitions,” Rogener wrote in an email. But one of his special needs students is Steven Johnson. “He loved the robot and the boys said they would name it after him,” he said.

“We incorporate a lot of things we do with the tech program, so it brings it full circle,” Canjura said, noting that many of the team members have taken advantage of the multitude of technology classes offered, from design to woodworking.

Robotics programs have soared in recent years, providing accessible STEM activities to kids. Being able to see and control the robot makes it teachable for students, who can observe what went wrong and how to fix it for the next time.

With a team of four sophomores and two freshmen, Rogener said that getting kids interested at a young age and sticking with it is essential to building interest in a fairly new program. Rogener said the program allows students to connect creativity with the field of technology. “It is a fun, effective and educational way for our students to grow as students, engineers and problem-solvers, skills that help to bring about lifelong learning,” he said. 

Board trustee Chris Picini suggested taking the robot to elementary schools to inspire younger kids. Superintendent Dr. Joseph Giani sat wide-eyed and jaw-dropped as the students showed off their creation. “I remember the first- and second-year robots,” Giani said. “This is amazing, compared to what I saw then.”