At the Today Show With Stuyvesant Robotics: The Community Within the Competitions

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Issue 3, Volume 109

By Veronika Kowalski, Jennifer Liu 

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Stuyvesant’s three Robotics teams—First Tech Challenge’s Stuy Fusion and Stuy Fission and First Robotics Challenge’s StuyPulse 694—assembled themselves at 6:00 a.m. on the podium at Rockefeller Plaza in the presence of over 100 audience members on Friday, September 21. They lugged their moving hunk of metal on the 2 train, withstood the prodding questions of strangers, and casually flaunted their Magnum Opus as the sun was beginning to rise.

After the Kickoff event early this month in which they found out about this year’s new challenge through a live stream, the Robotics teams are anticipating another year of hard work and connecting with the broader FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) community, which had organized their leagues and granted them the opportunity to appear on the Today Show. First Tech Challenge (FTC) team members Jonathan Lu, Aleksandra Koroza, and Lili Boenigk discuss the team’s experience on the show and during competitions.


How did you gain the opportunity to be on the Today Show?

Lu: We were invited to be featured in their program by the Regional Affiliate for FIRST Robotics, who manages all the Robotics activities in New York City. They first approached our mentors, Mr. Blay and Mr. Lonardo, and asked them if we would like to do a demonstration. We [479] will be showing two of our robots from last year; 310 and 479 will be showing one each. There will also be two teams from Lower Manhattan and one from Queens.

What are the differences between the three teams, other than size? Do you focus on making different things?

Koroza: When people join 694, they usually specialize in that one area unless they really don't like it. In all of the Robotics teams, there’s Software, there’s Engineering, and there’s Marketing. There’s also Scouting and Strategy, which is a bit like a subsection of Engineering. In FTC, though, it’s a little more fluid. In order to fully participate, you have to know how the engineering works. You have to be a part of the design process to write effective programs. You have to know how to contribute to Marketing to help with all the write-ups and Outreach events that we do. It’s really a bit of everything, as opposed to FRC, in which you specialize in one thing.

What about New York City Robotics? How often do you unite with other schools?

Koroza: Historically, we have been a bit disjointed. When you’re unable to share ideas among a large population, you’re sort of stuck in this little echo chamber. For example, if this mechanism doesn’t work, you go to your mentors. What if your mentors don’t know how it works? There’s a huge benefit to reaching out to multiple teams. That’s why Kickoff was really beneficial. We were able to talk about different strategies and try to see if our thoughts were actually creative. People thought of a lot of interesting things. It’s beneficial to the creativity of the community as a whole.

What do you do the day of the competition?

Koroza: Hopefully by then, your robot is working, fully functional, and you just go to matches and you win, right? That’s the idea. You get a match list and you go to your matches. There are several matches. The scoring is a point-based system. Imagine putting a ball into a hoop. That’s a certain amount of points. Parking your robot is another certain amount of points. There’s an autonomous part of the competition where you get more points for being able to complete the task. You can’t defend aggressively. You’d get points off for that.

What have your most meaningful experiences been?

Koroza: Spending a lot of time with the other members; you grow really close to those people, having brought the robot over to your house trying to cram a few last-minute changes. Working on the robot during the competition is another experience in and of itself with the tension, the fact that you trust the other members to help you, and the fact that you rely on each other’s wisdom. I think that is the main thing that I’m taking away: the value of teamwork, the value of accepting everyone’s positions, and trying to take in everyone’s ideas and putting them into something that works. It’s the hours you spend with these people, and you grow to like them. The friendship is formed over those many hours through building and talking about what went wrong.

When you joined Robotics, what did you expect to get out of it?

Lu: I joined the Robotics Team as an Engineer. During freshman year, I came to learn Mechanical Engineering. During my sophomore and junior years, I started to do electronics with CAD, which is what I continue to do today. I also spend a lot of my free time organizing Outreach, mentoring FLL teams, and transforming my passion for Engineering into something that’s communicable to others. That’s how I got interested in Marketing.

Koroza: I joined as a sophomore. I had experience in choral singing and plays, and I thought I was going to stick to that. I thought I was going to be a theater kid, but then I got drawn into the community that Robotics is and the fact that you could come and learn something new every day. If you don’t, you have to reflect on what you did. Also, being able to use power tools is a really cool thing. Those were the things that drew me in and kept me.


How was your experience at the Today Show?

Koroza: Exciting but also tiring because we woke up at 4:00 a.m. to get there at 6:00 a.m..

Boenigk: It was also cool because it wasn’t just our team. There were other NYC Robotics teams that we often see at competitions and events, but we got to network them in a new way. We had brought two robots, and we lent a team that didn’t have a functional robot our own.

Koroza: It ended up not working, but we still networked with them. We got their contact information. It’s cool to have this community. It’s all so surreal: you’re there at six in the morning, and there are anchors talking about the weather. Usually, you’d see this on TV, but here, you see it in person. They’d walk out, pointing at the audience. You could see them reviewing their notes before they went live with their glasses and Starbucks cups.

Where was it?

Boenigk: It was in an alleyway.

Koroza: It was just a feature. That’s all we were there for. We competed, we talked to teams, but you know how they do features on the Today Show?

Boenigk: So imagine, it’s between these two buildings, and it is dark in the morning. Over here is the game field where all the robots are demonstrating. On this side are all the Robotics Teams that are coming to watch, and here is kind of the more general audience. And here’s the game field. Every year, there’s like a sort of Robotics challenge and there are different games. This was last year’s game, and they set up a field. A bunch of Robotics teams brought their robots to demo.

What was your greatest takeaway from the event?

Koroza: I like the feeling of community and of waking up in the morning. That was a really special day in my mind. We came to class late, and we hung out at Whole Foods. Taking the subway with the robot was my greatest takeaway.

Boenigk: We were sitting on a bench of the 2 train with the bot in the middle. It was rush hour, and people were trying to step around the robot. People kept asking, “What does this piece do?”

What was the robot used for?

Boenigk: It was the robot we used last year. Every year, there’s a new challenge; you build a robot for that year’s theme. Going back to the biggest takeaway question, again, the sense of community, but also that the FIRST organization is the way we interact with other teams. It’s always a competition. It’s obviously competitive, so being there in a special environment early in the morning was very cool. So was networking.

Koroza: If we were to frame it in a concise way, it was collaborative rather than competitive.

Were you apprehensive?

Boenigk: A little bit, because these were last year’s robots.

Koroza: We had some technical issues.

Boenigk: You’re right; we had some last-minute fixing to do, but it worked out. It happens in every competition.

How do you normally react when you’re approached with last minute issues?

Boenigk: Duct tape. It’s always the hardware.

Koroza: I found that, as classic Stuy students, we work really well under pressure. At one competition, our phone wasn’t getting the right angle, so we taped it to the chassis of our bot at a certain angle that did work, even though we didn’t think of that at a normal meeting. It worked because of the positioning of the block.

Boenigk: One year, we needed wheel guards because pieces kept getting stuck under the robot and we couldn’t drive anymore, so we took pizza boxes and taped them to the robot to make the guards.

Koroza: We shouldn’t have to have last-minute innovations, but we do, that’s part of the excitement of the competition.

How many people were in the audience?

Boenigk: We were in between two buildings. We were situated in a narrow block of the road that was fenced off. The majority of us stood around the block. In the center of the block, they set out a green field where the news anchors stood. Of all five of the Robotics teams, I believe there were about 80 people, but audience members stopped off during different segments of the show.

Aleksandra: I would say there were 100 people total including all the workers manipulating the cameras, telling the anchors what to do, tinkering with the competition field, and making sure everything was set up.

How did they prep you to go on stage?

Boenigk: There was a hype guy. He came around, and we had to practice cheering about 10 times before we got it right. Jon and I had to say, “We’re Stuyvesant Robotics,” but we had to say it with the ultimate cheeriness.

What was the game?

Boenigk: You had to pick up these foam blocks and stack them. You could also get points by an autonomous mode dislodging a certain color ball based on your team color. Finally, you could pick up little plastic figures and extend them three feet up above the game field. It was more of a scrimmage than a game.

How did you interact with the other teams present?

Boenigk: We got to interact with teams in a way that we don’t usually get to at competitions, because obviously, at competitions, everybody’s kind of driven, so it’s a very different vibe. Here, it was really nice that we could interact with teams in a way that was more informal, and with one team, the Young Women’s Leadership Academy in Astoria, given that their robot wasn’t working and that we actually had two robots, we lent them one. Hopefully, we’ll be able to work with them later in the season.

This show was about the Robot Revolution. Where is this revolution going to take us?

Koroza: The applications that were in the show included medical applications. There were applications in the battlefield. I don’t know if we’ll be seeing day-to-day activities increasing rapidly, but I do think that it’s going to happen eventually. We’re already seeing vacuuming bots working if your house isn’t too cluttered. In general, though, I think time will bring a lot of applications that perhaps we don’t know about now. I know that robots help with engineering applications, which is another thing. Screening through many images. Being able to figure out if tumors are benign. There are robots employed to help the medical field.

Boenigk: I agree. I don’t think future Robotics will take the form depicted in the special. I think a big misconception is that advanced robots need to be humanoid. In fact, the opposite is true. The most advanced robots today work in factory assembly lines or in medical applications. We have seen the growth of AI in recent years. If a “robot revolution” happens, it will be very much tied up in where AI’s development takes us.