With one week to go before the big competition, the T. DeWitt Taylor Middle-High School robotics club’s robot isn’t working yet. It’s Jan. 19 and team Paint Can’s robot, affectionately nicknamed “It No Go,” isn’t fully assembled, and it can’t quite hold itself up. It needs more work before it can compete against other bots.
The team is taking it well.
“We’re a wee bit worried,” 11th-grader Emily Imbragulia said with a laugh.
Imbragulia’s a programmer. She’s been a member of the robotics club since it started two years ago.
Some of the club’s members are builders; those students use drills and heavy-duty glue to assemble the robots. As a programmer, Imbragulia is one of the students who writes the code to make the robots move and perform complex tasks.
Imbragulia has a distinctive look: She wears her short hair bright purple, and when she spoke with The Beacon Jan. 19, her purple hair and nails matched the purple Taylor Middle High School robotics team shirts. For Imbragulia, who wants to be a marine biologist when she grows up, the skills she’s learning are applicable just about anywhere.
“There’s robotics in everything, honestly,” she said. “Robotics isn’t just R2-D2; it’s building machinery that can do something.”
Imbragulia joined the club with her friend Autumn Johnson, and the two taught each other how to code using online tutorials.
“She learned, she taught me; I learned, I taught her,” Imbragulia said.
The program has become so popular that the Pierson school has two robotics teams to take to competitions.
When the two girls joined the robotics club, there wasn’t an established knowledge base. Imbragulia is hoping she and the other older students can help change that.
“We had no upperclassmen to teach us,” she said. “Kids joining now have us.”
They also have their teacher. With no formal education in robotics, Jonathan Herstein, like his students, has learned a lot on the fly.
It’s nothing new for Herstein. He doesn’t have an education degree, either, but he’s been teaching math for nine years.
“In all the jobs I had, my favorite thing to do was train and teach,” Herstein said.
Before becoming a teacher, he worked for Jumpin Beans Party Rentals — a company started by his brother — as well as Sysco Corp. and Chili’s. Of all the jobs, Herstein said, teaching has been the hardest, but it’s his favorite.
When he started the robotics club, the idea was to open his classroom to facilitate a space where students could teach themselves.
“I don’t teach robotics,” Herstein said. “I don’t know how to program. It’s set up so they can learn.”
While they meet formally only once per week, Herstein has students in his classroom most days after school.
For part of the year, his students are prepping for the FIRST Tech Challenge, or FTC, competition. Students build robots in their clubs or classes and compete against other Central Florida teams in challenges that test their ability to work together and to program robots to perform complex tasks.
This year, the FTC competition tested students’ ability to program robots to pick up plastic cones and place them on various spots in a large 16-foot-by-16-foot play area.
Even when it might seem like the kids are having more fun than they are learning anything, they’re still learning a lot.
Building robots and a future
Robotics programs like the one at Taylor Middle-High School and 39 other schools across Volusia County wouldn’t exist without Amy Monahan, Volusia County Schools’ pre-K-12 STEM specialist.
Around 2011, Monahan was moving from teaching at DeLand High School to working as a district administrator. When her daughter expressed interest in a robotics program at a school in Orange County, she set out to bring these programs to Volusia County.
The main vehicle for doing that was FIRST, or For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.
Founded in 1989, the nonprofit organization supports programs like FTC across the country for students of all ages in classrooms and in home-schooling programs.
Since joining the FIRST family in the early 2010s, Volusia County has become a banner school system, Monahan said, with FIRST sending representatives from other counties to take a look at how Volusia County’s programs operate.
There’s still room for growth, though. Getting a robotics program in a classroom requires a teacher, like Herstein, to take the project under their wing. Monahan wants more teachers to join in the fun and more schools to participate in FIRST competitions.
Currently, 40 Volusia County schools have teams.
“I’m proud of the teachers who put this together,” Monahan told The Beacon. “I do think this is a model program.”
It’s important, she said, because the skills students learn through these programs are applicable in the real world.
“Jobs in the 21st century are about critical thinking,” Monahan explained. “They’re about creativity. They’re about working in teams. They’re about being positive in that environment, but also being very creative. How do we instill that?”
A bit like sugar on the medicine spoon, the robotics programs teach practical skills in a very fun way, and prepare students for today’s professional environments.
“The jobs of just doing what you’re told don’t exist anymore,” Monahan said. “If we don’t teach our kids to take that and run with it, we’re doing them a disservice. It doesn’t matter what they’re doing for a living.”
Volusia County STEM programs have attracted the attention of the Volusia Manufacturers Association, a nonprofit organization that supports manufacturers across the county, as well as other local partners like Sparton, a defense manufacturer based in DeLeon Springs.
Across the region, FIRST teams are supported by large defense and manufacturing companies like Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and others. Even locally, Monahan said, the U.S. Department of Defense pays for students’ registration in FIRST’s programs.
That’s only going to make them more competitive when they graduate from high school.
“Students who do FIRST and put that on their résumé immediately go to the top of the pile,” Monahan said. “It’s like being an Eagle Scout, or getting your Gold Award in Girl Scouts. It has a level of understanding of where that person is.”
What is STEM?
STEM is an acronym used to refer to distinct-but-connected studies of science, technology, engineering and math. While each subject is often studied on its own, Volusia County Schools STEM Coordinator Amy Monahan explained, the best way to engage students and set them up for success is to integrate the subjects.
Think of it like this. Memorizing your times tables is just math.
“But using your times tables to figure something out in the world is STEM,” Monahan explained.
While foundational knowledge is necessary to get students started in STEM subjects, she said, instilling critical-thinking skills and thinking about the real-world applications of classroom studies is a more holistic way to teach.
On competition day, scores of students in grades six through 12 are assembled in the gymnasium at Hagerty High School in Oviedo for the opening ceremony before their robots battle it out in nearly 50 qualification matches.
Students from 30 teams got to the school as early as 8 a.m. to put finishing touches on their robots before the competition began at 10:30 a.m. Many didn’t leave Oviedo before 7 p.m. that night.
People unfamiliar with the FIRST Tech Challenge robotics competitions might not know it, but the competitions are a huge deal.
The games played out just like the students practiced for: Teams were randomly partnered for the three-minute qualification matches where their robots raced to put as many plastic cones as possible into strategic spots. Each cone put in place earned points, and each partnership is fleeting. Two teams allied for one match could be pitted against each other later and vice versa.
Energy was high among the students, but also among parents, too.
With his students prepping for their first qualifying match, Taylor Middle-High School’s Jonathan Herstein watched from the sidelines as Team Paint Can readied its robot for its first qualifying match.
“The parents love this stuff,” Herstein said. “They see the future in their kids.”
Paint Can competed in the first qualifying match of the day against two other teams, including The Pink Team from Rockledge High School in Brevard County. The Pierson students didn’t fare well in their first match, but Paint Can made up for it in their second qualifying match, which they won.
Competitions like FTC represent the very best Volusia County Schools has to offer, Deltona mom Emma Vancuran said. Her son, Nathaniel, is a part of the Deltona Middle School robotics team.
“The learning that is happening when they don’t even know they’re learning is great,” she said.
But when her son graduates from Deltona Middle, Vancuran said, she’s considering sending him out of the county to a school with a larger focus on science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.
“Our STEM classes are not where they need to be,” she said of Volusia County.
Deltona Middle School’s robotics teams are trailblazers in their own right. While the school only has one FTC team, named Trouble Bubble, Deltona Middle School has seven FIRST Lego League, or FLL, teams.
While the Lego League is a bit different from FTC — there’s no soldering, for example — Deltona Middle School STEM coordinator Tanya Naylon said it’s a far cry from building Lego sets right out of the box.
“It has nothing to do with building a tree, or an animal, or a car. They are going in and programming and engineering weight distribution,” she said. “They think, and that critical-thinking aspect, it just blows me away.”
Naylon wishes robotics programs like FLL and FTC were treated the same as competitive sports.
“Here they are after school, working just like they would with basketball or any other sport,” she said. “That dedication is still there.”
Deltona Middle School’s Trouble Bubble — boasting a $1,000 infusion from NASA — didn’t make it past the qualifying competition that lasted all day Jan. 28. In fact, none of the Volusia County teams did.
But one team came close: University High School’s Titans 1.
The Orange City high school has just one robotics team, and the Jan. 28 competition marked only the second time they had competed on the regional level. While Titans 1 finished the first round of qualifiers in third place, they were knocked out during the intense final round. They won’t be moving on to the state-level competition, but the students are still pretty happy.
“As our team is rebuilding, the students were way more excited about finishing third than they were disappointed they got eliminated,” University High School robotics and engineering teacher Pete Shelton said.
When he brought his FTC team to the same competition the year before, they finished in nearly last place, Shelton said. But when he asked the older students what their favorite part of the year was, they unanimously agreed that it was the FTC competition.
Like the Taylor Middle-High School team, Shelton’s team was running on a shoestring budget, and that can be tough when FTC robots can cost, on the low end, as much as $1,500.
But it speaks volumes about the camaraderie between teams that everyone has a good time at these events. When they came to the competition last year, Shelton said, other teams were quick to lend his team a hand or let his students borrow tools. This year, he was happy that his team was able to lend a hand to others.
One University High School team member, Kaden Ostheim, came out of home-schooling to be a part of programs like the robotics team.
While he loves robotics, Kaden, 15, wants to be a geneticist when he grows up.
“I love biology,” he told The Beacon. “Genetics light me up.”
The 12 teams that progressed to the state competition later this month are from Longwood, Oviedo, Titusville, Melbourne and Sanford. Some are affiliated with public schools, some with private academies, and some even received sponsorship from big engineering companies like Lockheed Martin.
Checking back in
On competition day, Jan. 28, the robot built by Taylor Middle-High School’s team Paint Can was barely recognizable from its condition just a week before. The bot at one point couldn’t properly move, but on competition day, the students steered it to hold its own in qualifying matches.
“I worked on some more coding and found errors I made here and there, and fixed those,” Taylor Middle-High School student Emily Imbragulia told The Beacon. “We knew what all to do, we just had to do it.”
By the end of the qualifiers, Paint Can’s robot finished in 26th place, while Taylor’s other team, Doomba, ended in 14th, just past the 12-team cutoff for the final round.
Even still, spirits were high, Taylor robotics coach Jonathan Herstein said. While the FTC season is over for the students, they can focus on preparing for the next competition they’ll be a part of.
Imbragulia wasn’t really worried about whether they qualified, either. For her, the focus has always been on getting better and better.
“There’s always something you can gain from it,” she said. “If you never take a chance, you never learn anything.”
I volunteered as a game announcer/MC at FTC competitions a few years ago, and it was really fun. FIRST teaches a value they call Gracious Professionalism, and they turn out some of the most polite, respectful, cheerful, creative and cooperative young people you will ever meet. It was an absolute pleasure to work with them. Chances are Uni and other schools with FTC/FIRST teams need volunteers to help on competition days — if it sounds like fun to you, reach out and see if they can use your help!