Union High School robotics team excels

 Members of the Union High School robotics team are, from left, John Arkerson, Mike Zmuda, Luther Joseph, Kristine Padolina, Nikolas Moreno, Hanson-Lee Harjono and Noah Dobson with the team's robot, ‘Scorphio Scoobert.’
Members of the Union High School robotics team are, from left, John Arkerson, Mike Zmuda, Luther Joseph, Kristine Padolina, Nikolas Moreno, Hanson-Lee Harjono and Noah Dobson with the team’s robot, ‘Scorphio Scoobert.’

UNION, NJ — Members of Insert Team Name Here, the senior robotics team at Union High School, spend about 15 hours a week working on their robot during competition season, which this year extends from early November to the end of February.

Their efforts are carefully documented in a 40-page engineering notebook, including what works, along with what doesn’t work. Among the things that work is their robot, Scorpio Scoobert, that won a design award at a VEX competition in January.

But like the moniker, “Insert Team Name Here,” implies, the students have a sense of humor about what they do, even when their robot breaks down in the middle of a tournament, after countless hours of perfection in practice.

“The process of it is stressful, especially when it breaks down in a competition. One of the most stressful parts is troubleshooting,” said Luther Joseph, a senior at Union High School and the team’s head programmer. “But once it actually works, it’s one of the best feelings in the world.”

The Union High School robotics club is at the end of its sophomore season, and the past few months have been a clear step forward for its eight members, said Michael Atzbi, the club’s advisor and the engineering teacher at the high school.

A $5,000 grant from the Union Education Foundation enabled the team to buy a practice surface for the robot, aluminum supplies, a toolbox, specialized sensors and other parts which “really helped us get the competitive edge this year,” he said.
The end result was a polished robot. Insert Team Name Here made waves in regional tournaments and received a design award on Jan. 9 , the club’s first piece of silverware.

“For this project, we started on it in April of last year, that’s when the topic of the competition was released. There’s almost a year’s worth of design in there,” said Atzbi. “The way the design award works is there are awards for the competition itself, and there are other awards the judges can give out, like the excellence award. For the design award, the judges go around and say, ‘which robot deserves an award, but doesn’t necessarily fit into these categories?’”

While Atzbi oversees the team’s progress during competition season, the students do virtually all the work: They come up with the ideas by themselves, meet most days before or after school, and stay late on Thursdays to make sure the robot’s always ready for the next competition.

After they’ve been given design guidelines for the robot in April, they go online, look at comparable models, do research, buy parts from a company, and then get started on building the actual robot, using knowledge they learned in Atzbi’s engineering classes.

“As soon as it’s done, you get a serious sense of pride and accomplishment,” said Mike Zmuda, a junior and the team’s driver. “It definitely gives you an opportunity to either grow your creativity, and put a use to it.”

Almost by accident, Zmuda, Joseph and four other students chartered the robotics club at Union High School last year. At first, they were getting together with the intention of starting a STEM club, where people could come in and work on science-related projects together.

“Then, Mr. Atzbi told us that there’s a VEX competition every year that we could go to. We were like, ‘sure, why not?’” said Luther. “We started doing that, and it became more and more a robotics club, because that’s what we focused on. The school recognized us, after the first year, as the robotics club.”

The team performed “very well” in its first year, said Atzbi, when the students created a “claw blot” that picked up items. But the students excelled in the 2015-2016 season with Scorpio Scoobert, a robot which launches balls into a net for points.

At competitions, “Insert Team Name Here” played alongside another high school robotics club — picked at random, in many cases — in games against two other robots, in a 2 v. 2 format. It was sometimes frustrating to be partnered with a team that didn’t show up, or whose robot was broken, but the tournament system teaches students “a lot about how to work as part of a team,” said Hanson-Lee Harjono, a junior on “Insert Team Name Here.”

The students also know that even when they fix an issue with their own robot, they’re oftentimes creating 10 new problems to deal with. One member of Insert Team Name Here, junior Kristine Padolina, compared building the robot to “raising Pokemon,” because the team constantly needs to help it grow and become stronger.

And, like Pokemon, the students have fun while building the robot — hence the name, “Insert Team Name Here.”
“We couldn’t think of anything. We were just messing around and someone cracked the joke why don’t we just call the team ‘Insert Team Name Here?’” said Zmuda.

“I have to sign up for it all online, and the box said ‘insert team name here,’ so there we go.”