TOMS RIVER, NJ — Parents, friends, and other robot enthusiasts packed the bleachers at the newly renamed RWJBarnabas Health Arena on January 21st to cheer on the robotics teams from Toms River Regional Schools as they competed in the Jersey Shore Showdown FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC). Four of the 30 teams from southern New Jersey participating in the competition were Intermediate North’s CyberFins, High School East’s Raiders-Short Circuits, High School North’s Iron Mariners, and High School South’s Voltrons.
FIRST, For Inspiration & Recognition of Science & Technology, is an international youth organization that inspires young people to be science and technology leaders and innovators. The organization sponsors different events such as the FIRST Lego League, FIRST Tech Challenge, and FIRST Robotics Competition.
FIRST Tech Challenge in New Jersey has teams from all over the state that compete in regional tournaments by participating in at least two qualifiers and a small and large meet during a season. If a team does well, they proceed to the state championship and can also be selected for the world championship.
At the recent Jersey Shore Showdown, the Toms River teams competed in a FTC, which is a mid-level robotics competition for grades 7-12. According to FIRST’s website, “Teams of middle and high school-aged students are challenged to design, build, and program a robot to play a floor game against other teams’ creations.” Additionally, in a FIRST Tech Challenge, students develop STEAM skills and practice engineering principles as they are tasked with designing, building, programming, operating, and troubleshooting their creations in head-to-head (or gear-to-gear) competitions.
The competitions are rooted in practicing good sportsmanship, working as a team, and helping others while realizing the value of hard work and dedication in completing a challenging task. FIRST asks participants to always show respect and to practice a term unique to these competitions – Gracious Professionalism.
The Toms River Regional Schools teams acted as gracious hosts at the event by exuding a deep spirit of collaboration and kindness and worked together even while competing by helping another team score additional points on the competition field. Members of the High School South Voltrons, plus a member of the High School North Iron Mariners, were awarded the “Best Example of Alliance Teamwork” by judges for going above and beyond in these areas of good character.
“It was a gratifying experience to see the collaboration and professionalism that took place between students and staff in the RWJBarnabas Health Arena,” said John Raffaele, a HSS Voltron team co-advisor. “Toms River really did an extraordinary job perpetuating what these competitions represent.”
Over the past three years, the creation and development of robotics teams at each high school and one intermediate school in the district has been taking place. According to the district’s Supervisor of Educational Technology Tiffany Lucey, the robotics teams were formed out of student interest and excitement from Jersey Shore Makerfest. Lucey has been a co-organizer of the event since its inception along with Assistant Superintendent Marc Natanagara. The event, which has been presented by Toms River Regional Schools for the past three years, is centered on initiatives to foster student interest and growth in areas such as technology, science, and engineering. Underlying these initiatives are educational approaches such as STEAM, active learning, and problem-based learning.
The district has also focused heavily on college and career readiness in the past few years and implemented Career Academies at each of the district’s three high schools for the 2017-2018 school year. The STEAM Academy at High School East focuses on these related areas and offers students the opportunity to focus in the areas of BioMedicine, Engineering, and Environmental Sustainability with courses focusing on marine science, medicine, engineering, science research, genetics, advanced manufacturing, and more.
Lucey notes that, “There are many college scholarships available to students who participate in clubs and activities that focus on STEAM and robotics.” She continued, “Colleges and universities look closely at students who have participated in these challenging events because they realize the dedication and hard work that goes into successfully participating in a competition such as the FIRST Tech Challenge.”
The robotics clubs rely heavily on fundraising, sponsorships, and grants to purchase supplies and more advanced equipment needed to successfully participate and excel in these competitions. The teams have been awarded small grants or have gotten companies to sponsor them including FIRST, Staples, The Jay and Linda Grunin Foundation, Navair, Commvault, Ocean Salons, Olive Garden, Coldwell Banker Flanagan Realty, Itooz, Big Diehl’s, 2 Million & Change, Airgraphix, OPM Lawn and Landscaping, and Atmos-Tech, among others.
They also rely on parent, student, and community volunteers to help implement these competitions. In fact, the event at the arena was made more successful because of the added support of the National Honor Society, parent volunteers, and mascots from each school.
“It was a proud moment for our district to have four teams be a part of this recent FIRST Tech Challenge and I believe we are just getting started,” said Suzanne Signorelli, co-advisor of the HSE Raiders-ShortCircuits. “All of the coaches across the four schools work so closely together and care so much about the students and the program being successful. We are also very lucky to have supportive parents who continually encourage and volunteer their time during the season.”