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Robotics championship hosts hundreds of high school students, robots in West Springfield

Caitlin Reardon
From left to right: Connecticut high school students Emma Lally, Emily Bernard and Chris Caruso with robot "Beyonce."

Robots crawled around the Eastern States Exposition grounds Friday, in West Springfield, for the New England FIRST District Robotics Championship.

The 96 participating high school robotics teams have been workshopping their creations in competing matches since Wednesday, and will continue in their events until Saturday.

The teams are split evenly into two divisions – the Gamson and Richardson divisions – and earn points throughout the week to qualify for the 2024 FIRST international championship, set to be held in Houston, Texas. The event will culminate in late April, and is expected to host over 600 high school robotics teams from across the world.

Each team competed in at least two smaller events to qualify for this week’s district championship, and were then given only eight weeks to build a 'big' robot to bring to West Springfield. The robots all must be able to complete the same assigned challenges. The bots must shoot an orange foam ring, or a “note,” into different targets, and complete a climb.

Although the robots should be able to perform these functions, students can tinker with their work throughout the competition for better performance.

The all-girls Tech Tigers of Mercy High School, in Middletown, Connecticut, name their robots after influential and inspiring women. This year, the 21 Tech Tiger students agreed on “Beyoncé," as the name for their 117-pound bot.

“We just thought Beyoncé’s a great figure of women empowerment,” Tech Tiger safety captain and junior Chris Caruso said, citing the singer’s iconic “Run The World (Girls)” anthem. “...She also puts a ring on it!”

The competition means more than just winning a title to many of the students. Besides getting their hands dirty, students have the chance to network, win team spirit awards, and make friends with other teams in the robotics community.

“We have the experience, it’s learning what we want to be when we grow up, and getting an early introduction into it,” Tech Tigers’ programmer Emily Bernard said.

The Middletown team qualified for the New England district championship after they won the Impact Award two weeks ago at another competition, which is “an outreach-related award that is the most prestigious honor you can be given in the FIRST Robotics community,” Caruso said.

John Fitzpatrick, coach for the Ligerbots from Newton, Massachusetts, said win or lose, his team already bought their plane tickets to Houston.

“My students said even if we don’t qualify and we can’t bring the robot, we still wanna go and volunteer. I was like, well how do you say no to that?”

“You don’t,” said Lynne Henry, who has been volunteering for 22 years with the Agawam High School’s Rosie Robotics team. “Because it’s huge.”

Henry helps out in organizing transportation, food and other needs for the Agawam students – years after her own son, once a Rosie Robotics member, graduated from the high school. She emphasized how impactful the students’ gained confidence is not only to them, but to her.

“It’s just an awesome experience to have a child come in not being totally afraid, and for them to realize that, ‘I did that. We did that, look what we can do,’ and just to watch them [and] the growth,” Henry said.

Teams will wrap up their matches Saturday before they find out who gets to move on to the international competition in Houston.

“I love it with all of my heart. It is a phenomenal competitive environment, but also one where you can make friends and meet awesome people from not just all over your country, but all over the world. Literally the world!” Caruso said.

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