6 Berkshire teams among 10 forming first-ever Western Massachusetts high school robotics league

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Photo Gallery | McCann Tech students prepare for First Tech Challenge

Six Berkshire high school robotics teams this Saturday will open the inaugural season of the Western Massachusetts First Tech Challenge League, with an electronic eye toward the FTC World Championships in the spring.

The three-time defending state championship team, Higgs Bots, and newly formed Eagle Empire, both from Mount Everett Regional High School, are joined by competitors from Lenox Memorial Middle and High School, the Charles H. McCann Technical School of North Adams; St. Joseph Central High School and Miss Hall's School, both of Pittsfield. Rounding out the 10-team league is a group from Hadley and three from Deerfield Academy.

Saturday's league opener is from 9 a.m. to noon at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield, with additional competitions scheduled for Jan. 9 at Deerfield Academy and Jan. 23 back at BCC.

The Higgs Bots put the Berkshires on the robotics map in April, making their first appearance at the international FTC event in St. Louis. Team mentors Paul O'Brien and Chris Thompson expect a tougher road ahead for a return trip to the Midwest.

"We like to think we're the [New England] Patriots and teams are gunning for us," Thompson said. "Competition is what drives these kids."

In just its second year, Team Enginuity from Lenox shared the 2015 state crown as part of a three-team alliance with the Higgs Bots and a team from Lincoln, all advancing to the regional FTC event in Scranton, Penn. Only the Mount Everett team went on to attend worlds.

The Mad McCannics hope to replicate Lenox's quick success as the McCann Tech squad begins its second year having been on a huge learning curve during its 2015 debut.

"Last year was all about how the competition works, putting the robot components together and the excitement of the robotic competitions," said McCann science teacher Erin Mucci, a co-adviser with technology teacher Perry Burdick.

Dealing with adversity in the middle of a match was another first-year challenge, according to McCann senior Evan Delmolino.

"At one point our robot broke and we had to hammer in a couple of pins as that's all the time we had for to fix it," he said.

FTC events involve sophisticated robots performing singular tasks. This year, the tasks are modeled after rescue situations faced by mountain explorers around the globe. Among the ways the robots can score points on the 12-by-12-foot model playing surface is resetting rescue beacons, delivering rescue climbers to a shelter and retrieving debris from the playing field and placing them in mountain or floor goals.

Randomly selected two-team alliances are formed, working together to score points within a two-minute, 30-second time frame. Each robot has two student operators: one drives the machine, the other controls the attachment performing the task.

A third student acts as a coach, keeping an eye on the bigger picture as you have two sets of alliances on the same playing surface at one time.

Until this year, only a handful of FTC competitions were held in the commonwealth, most in the eastern part of the state. For the 2015-16 season, Massachusetts FTC required formal leagues so all teams could compete closer to home and have a better chance of qualifying for the state championship.

"Western Mass has some great talent and this league is an opportunity to show what the students can do," said Paul O'Brien, Mount Everett's other adult mentor.

TLD Robotics from St. Joe's in its first full season looks to see how well it will stack up against more established robotics programs.

"It's more about [gaining] experience than winning," said coach Bridget Gormalley.

The St. Joe students are also being graded as participating in FTC matches is an extension of their last-period robotics class.

"It's more fun than taking a history class and allows me to branch out into something more engaging," said senior Mike Peplowski.

The Western Massachusetts FTC program builds on the success of the now 17-year-old Berkshire FIRST Lego League Robotics program, which caters to younger students, ages 8 to 14 years old. Each March, nearly 30 teams comprised of more than 200 local elementary and middle students gather in Lenox to compete in the annual Berkshire Robotics Challenge, At both levels, students design, build and program their robots to perform the tasks necessary to score points during each match.

Contact Dick Lindsay at 413 496-6233.


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