For the 14 members of the Yeshiva University High School for Boys rookie robotics team, winning the New York City championship in the FIRST Tech Challenge absolutely was a dream come true.
The team — Lionotics 2 — made history as the first yeshiva high school team ever to qualify for the FIRST Tech Challenge East Region Super-Regional Championship, held at Scranton University in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
Yet the boys’ elation was tempered by a little problem they already were discussing on the bus back from their victory — the next step. The regional championship would take place March 16 to 18, with matches scheduled on Saturday. Shabbat. That was out of the question for the Orthodox team.
“We weren’t sure we’d even be able to go,” Lionotics 2 team member Zachary Mankowitz of Teaneck said.
After an initial request to change the date of the competition was rejected, YUHSB administrators and Yeshiva University’s Department of Legal Affairs worked closely with FIRST representatives to reach a resolution that would enable the team to participate without compromising their religious observances.
And so, while other participating teams played their matches over the course of the full three-day event, Lionotics 2 played all nine of its matches back-to-back on Sunday in order to avoid desecrating Shabbat.
“Our team worked tirelessly to advance to this level of the FIRST Tech Challenge competition,” Rabbi Joshua Kahn, YUHSB’s head of school, said. “We are grateful to FIRST for promoting cultural diversity and making the accommodations necessary to enable our team to compete.”
The team members and accompanying adults arrived in Scranton on Friday. “We did our inspection and talked to the judges and then said, ‘We’ll be back on Sunday,’” reported Aryeh Greenberg, a senior from Teaneck who captained the software part of the robotics team. They spent Shabbat in the dorm of the Yeshiva of Scranton.
Lionotics 2 won its first match, but the tight schedule presented disadvantages for the team, which had no prior competition experience. The boys did not have a lot of time to strategize or make required improvements and repairs to their robot between matches.
Indeed, issues began to arise as the day wore on.
“In one match, one of the robot’s critical components was smashed by another team’s robot and bent, and our team didn’t realize until the next round when it didn’t work right due to the rush from match to match,” Lionotics 2 team member Elishama Marmon of Bergenfield said. “The robot also had connectivity issues, and there were several matches where it was unresponsive due to unplugged wires or glitches.”
Ultimately, the yeshiva team finished 23rd out of 36 teams in its division. Still, the young men came away with a positive feeling.
“Even though we lost, the experience was really incredible,” Zachary said. “Everyone was so nice and accommodating when they found out we had all nine games in a row. One opposing team even came and offered us extra batteries in case ours died. We were all trying to have a fun, good time.”
Tom Zawislak and Dave Hackett of Pennsylvania FIRST Robotics, the East Super Regional hosts, were instrumental in making arrangements for the YUHSB team to compete.
“As soon as we met the boys we knew they had the passion for robotics, but more important, a thirst for learning and experiencing new challenges, such as this competition,” the men said in a statement after the event.
“We were thrilled to see them engage with so many other teams and create fun for themselves and share their fun with others. They truly came ready to play and were competitive on the field throughout all of their matches. Very impressive performance by a rookie team!”
The other local members of the team were GJ Neiman of Suffern (captain for the hardware part); Dov Tuchman of Passaic; and Sammy Cohen, Benny Jacob, and Netanel Tager of Teaneck.
FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was founded in 1989 by inventor/entrepreneur Dean Kamen. The not-for-profit public charity offers programs — including the Tech Challenge — designed to motivate teams of middle- and high-school students to pursue education and career opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), while building self-confidence, knowledge, and life skills.
This year’s Tech Challenge required the robots to pick up and stack blocks in “cryptoboxes” (rails) and also to fetch a “relic” from a corner of the 12-foot-square playing field and move it off the field onto a mat to score points.
Zachary helped work on the robot’s hardware during weekly (and sometimes twice-weekly) after-school sessions, which started in September. “We remade the entire robot three times over,” he said. “It was hard to get the claws to work right; we needed two, one for the blocks and one for the relic.”
Each year the participating robotics teams must build their robot specifically to carry out the tasks assigned by FIRST, so it isn’t possible to reuse the previous year’s entry. However, Aryeh said “next year maybe they’ll start from the drivetrain and build up from there.”
He said that FIRST “is a great organization because it allows for integration of real-world use of the STEM skills you learn in school, like circuitry and hardware design. I like to see when my work comes to life and that’s what robotics lets you do. Being part of Lionotics 2 reinforced my love for STEM and computer science.”
With the Super-Regional behind them, the boys now are focusing their efforts on preparing the robot to compete in the second annual Yeshiva High School Robotics League competition next month in Flatbush.