Sitting at a cafeteria table in Harry Truman High School in Co-op City, surrounded by his teammates as they waited for their turn to compete next door in the gym, 13 year-old Andy Dujon enthused about the life of a robotics contestant.
“Oh, I love it,” said Dujon, an eighth-grader at Pablo Casals Middle School in the Bronx. “I love the competition, the technology, being able to look at something you created. It’s satisfying to see it do what you want it to do.”
Surrounding him in the cafeteria, labeled “the pit” for this nerve-wracked day, groups of 9 to 14 year-olds clad in matching team T-shirts crowded around their laptops and robots made from Legos, which were designed to move through a course set up on a table, picking up pieces along the way. In the gym, music blared while parents, classmates and coaches cheered from the bleachers as their teams rushed to beat the timer.
In his second year on the Lego robotics team, Dujon competed earlier this month in a Bronx-wide FIRST LEGO League tournament, part of an increasingly popular afterschool program in which students team up to build robots. They vie for prizes in best robot design, best teamwork and best project, among others.
The youngster’s mother, Victoria Dujon, said she’s noticed a difference between pre- and post-robotics Andy. “It keeps him active and motivated and helps him do better in math,” she said.
The FIRST robotics programs are proving to be particularly beneficial to students who come from less-privileged backgrounds. More than 30 high schools across the city have robotics teams, while 190 elementary and middle schools offer Lego programs. Students who spend evenings and weekends designing and building robots tend to have better attendance records, be more socially confident, do better academically and even be more likely to go to college, educators said.
“It’s not just building robots. It’s the experience of dealing with each other and working together. It’s an opportunity for kids who aren’t good at sports, the kids get to travel, it helps them get internships,” said Gary Israel, a coach for the Morris Academy of Collaborative Studies High School in the South Bronx, where most students live in the country’s poorest congressional district.
The robotics programs were created in 1992 by the nonprofit FIRST, or For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. Among other activities the New Hampshire-based organization designed, the Robotics Competition was set up for high schoolers around the world. Teams of 10 to 20 students have six weeks to build large remote-controlled robots that can do a specified task, such as putting balls through a hole or picking up triangle shapes. Elementary and middle school students, instead, compete in the LEGO League, where they build simpler robots out of Lego pieces.
For this month’s contest, teams used nanotechnology to build their robot competitors and make them go through courses. The teams purchase the materials from FIRST, and build them using more than 1,000 Lego pieces plus technology such as 32-bit processors, Bluetooth wireless devices and computer software.
When the high school program begins in January, teams will use mechanical and electrical engineering skills to build robots weighing up to 130 pounds. FIRST supplies them with $6,000 worth of metal, plastic, wood and other building materials.
Brandeis University researchers interviewed current and alumni team members from high schools in lower-income areas of New York and Detroit, including Morris Academy. The 2005 study, More than Robots, showed that 99 percent of participants graduated high school and 89 percent went to college, whereas only 65 percent of students nationwide go on to higher education. The program also encourages the study of math, science and engineering.
“We found that kids who did this program are more interested in community service, and it really made a difference in their school spirit,” said Tracy Cutter, a research associate at the Brandeis Center for Youth and Community, who worked on the study.
The Bronx school system has put particular emphasis on adding programs in recent years, Israel said. The borough now has 71 Lego teams and seven high school programs. Teachers, coaches and parents all praised the program enthusiastically.
Brandeis researchers also found that most students involved in the program already had a B average or higher before they started. Still, principals, teachers and coaches in the Bronx all praised the program enthusiastically and cited examples of students who were not doing so well before joining.
“But it’s not just the technical piece, there’s also an emotional piece,” Morris Academy Principal Charles Osewalt added. Students also learn to be courteous, punctual and to work with adults.
At Herman Ridder Intermediate School in the Bronx, the promise of a coveted spot on the robotics team is often used to encourage students to improve their grades, said Principal Claralee Irobunda.
“Many work on it during lunch, after school till 5:30, sometimes before school. They’ll stay until they’re kicked out,” Irobunda said. She insisted the program is not just well-liked, but also beneficial, particularly for students with behavioral problems or special needs, because it’s hands-on and keeps them focused.
Teammates Junaid Akbar and Armend Elezaj, both 13 year-old seventh graders at Frank Whalen Middle School, said their grade point averages jumped from the 80s to the 90s when they joined.
“My grades are better, we get to learn new things and it helps you get into college,” Elezaj said.