It’s April 7, 2023, at the FMA District Competition at Lehigh University, Bethlehem, PA. In a bustling auditorium, people wave signs and cheer. The bleachers are filled with team members and fans wearing the colors of their favorite team, waving flags and shaking pom-poms to show their enthusiasm.
The game requires teamwork, coordination, balance, and endurance. Matches are short, lasting only two and a half minutes, but the competition lasts a rigorous three full days, with each team competing in multiple matches. Standing outside the gymnasium, it’s hard to believe that all this excitement is over a robotics match.
Yet, to the high school students who compete, and the coaches, mentors, and parents who support them, robotics is a big deal. FIRST, a global nonprofit robotics community that seeks to inspire young people, plays a huge role in STEM education throughout South Jersey. Hundreds of local students compete in robotics leagues tailored to their age levels and are inspired to pursue careers that reflect the education and values they acquire through their experience competing. South Jersey Robotics (SJR) is a local nonprofit that partners with FIRST and embodies the goals and spirit of FIRST at a grassroots level.
Team 316, The LUNATECS, an SJR team based in Salem County, is celebrating some exciting results so far in their 25th season. At its first competition in Robbinsville, NJ the team won the Quality Award for their robot engineering, and their alliance placed second overall in the robot game. Two weeks later, at their second competition in Bensalem, PA, they again placed second overall with their alliance team and qualified for the District Championships at Lehigh University.
In each match, the LUNATECS’ robot demonstrates the skill of its builders, programmers, and drive team, collecting and placing cones and cubes in their designated positions, and expertly balancing on a specially designed ramp during the robot game. However, there’s much more to this team than working with bots. At the Bensalem FIRST Mid-Atlantic Qualifier, they received the FIRST Impact Award and were recognized as the FIRST Robotics Challenge team that “Best represents a model for other teams to emulate and best embodies the mission of FIRST”. In addition to spending a great deal of time in the lab building, programming and practicing with their robot, these high schoolers are active in the community facilitating STEM education and helping those in need.
During the summer and fall of 2022, the LUNATECS honed their leadership skills and shared their knowledge and experience by volunteering at summer camps and mentoring younger robotics teams. Each November they lead other SJR teams in hosting the Robot Run and Steamfest, which is the largest STEM event in South Jersey. At this event, teams are joined by a local bomb squad robot and many colleges to show the myriad possibilities for a future career in STEM. By mentoring younger robotics teams in the area, and helping to start new teams, the LUNATECS are passing their experience and enthusiasm on to the next generation of robotics students.
However, it isn’t all about education and mentoring for this team. In the off-season, the LUNATECS use the equipment in their lab and the skills they have acquired to help improve the lives of physically challenged individuals. Most recently they have been working with the Adaptive Diving Association designing, fabricating and donating swim fins to spinal cord injury victims so they can scuba dive and be free from gravity’s confines. In 2019 and 2020 the LUNATECS manufactured a mold that produced 100 adult swim fins. The Adaptive Diving Association appreciated the swim fins and even asked the LUNATECS to create a pediatric size, which they are working on this season.
It’s exciting to report at the Lehigh University District Championship, this team was recognized at the First Mid-Atlantic Level, and won the Impact Award again. The judges loved hearing how a small group of 15 students is making huge strides to bring STEM to the community via outreach initiatives while using their engineering skills to help others in need. To top it off, their coach, Danielle Hasson, received the Woodie Flowers Award, which recognizes those who lead, inspire, and empower others with their excellent communication skills.
Before and during the season, members of the Lunatecs work hard to raise the funds necessary for their program. But they estimate that it will cost $2,000 per student to go to the FIRST World Championships in Houston. As a community-based team, they receive no school funding and rely solely on grants, sponsorships, and individual donations. They have set up a gofundme account at gofund.me/08e4e0ce to help with some of these costs. Donations of all sizes are greatly appreciated.