Steel Hawks advance to Worlds after claiming regional championship


Photo by Phillip Fraczek

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By the end of the final round at the FIRST Robotics New York Tech Valley Regional Competition last Wednesday, the Townsend Harris Steel Hawks robotics team were all sprawled across the floor of the stadium in exhaustion, but for many of them it was worth it. After a long build season and three days of intense qualifying rounds and elimination stages at the Albany competition, to the relief of the entire team, they won the tournament championship. This is the second time the team has won this event in its history; with this result the team has also qualified for its seventh Worlds Robotics Competition, which will be held this upcoming April in Houston, Texas.

“What is meaningful to me about FIRST is it celebrates ‘coopertition,’ which is what they say. That if you win against a team that’s not a good rival, it doesn’t mean anything,” Assistant Principal of Science, Math, and Technology and robotics coach Susan Brustein said. “Your goal is to help somebody else to become better so that when you compete you’re actually winning. It’s enshrined in their gracious professionalism award, which we have won in every venue that we’ve ever competed in.”

The regional had 69 qualifying matches. The teams were randomly placed into alliances, either red or blue, which are made up of three teams each. The alliances raced to score cargo into two hubs, a lower one worth one point per cargo and an upper one worth two points per cargo. They could additionally earn points by climbing four rungs, with the lowest one worth four points and the others worth six points, ten points, and fifteen points. 

Each match lasts a total of two minutes and thirty seconds. The first fifteen seconds of the match relies on precoded information to move the robot autonomously. Human drivers and operators can control the robot during the rest of the match. 

The team’s Head of Communications, senior Karan Ajmera, described the preparation for the competition. He said, “The preparation process was long and it all happened pretty quickly since we were running behind, but it worked out well in the end. Our main challenge was just ensuring that we packed all the right things because we haven’t packed for a competition in almost three years. Also, just finishing the robot became a challenge because we had a lot of moving parts and not enough time to get everything on there, but in the end it worked out really well for us.”

The team discussed the many challenges that they had to overcome. Ms. Brustein described the financial costs of competing as “wicked expensive.” Though they have donors, she said, the team had to pursue additional fundraising efforts to cover competition fees, travel, robot parts, and other expenses. The Steel Hawks has been operating a morning cafe where they sell drinks such as boba and coffee. The Chairman’s financial team also worked towards amassing team funds. 

“The Chairman’s team did such a good job on explaining our finances that they won an award we didn’t even know we were going for, which was the entrepreneurial award,” Ms. Brustein said.

The residual effects of the pandemic also posed many difficulties. “I would say one of the biggest challenges in this build season specifically was the fact that we were all adjusting to return back to the really long days as well as adjusting to the work requirements,” senior Ethan Diep said. “All the veterans were at least a little bit rusty, and tasks had to be done longer than it would’ve taken in the past from rustiness and inexperience combined. Despite this, we were able to complete our jobs, which I definitely give props to the whole team for.”

“I felt awe at the team overcoming the obstacles of not having two years of hands-on experience and still triumphing at the competition, which is a testament to how hard they all worked,” Ms. Brustein said. “The only people that remained on the team were freshmen. There was such a huge deficit of muscle memory with working with things, and reading about something and doing it is just so different.”

Freshman Abdullah Khan, a member of the Programming Department, said that going into regionals, “Some of the members had low expectations when we were going after the Falcons, because they had swerve drives which let their team be very fast. But then, after we lost the first round we started chanting crazy for the second, and all of a sudden people were chanting for our team – even those who weren’t on it. We got closer and closer to winning, catching up by the last round, and our defense was just insane. After we traversed the final rung, everyone was just jumping up and down.”

“The robot did things towards the end that I don’t think they were able to do in the beginning. I think that in the first couple of matches I was watching it only do the low goal and then suddenly the high goal,” Ms. Brustein said. “I didn’t know that they were prepared to do that, so once they did that it changed our game of play.”

Although there were clear standout contributions from the captains of the robotics team, they emphasized how the win was a collective effort. With over 100 members, the Steel Hawks have eight teacher coaches, including teachers and mentors Joel Heitman, Joshua Ragunath, John Tsai, David Stern, Olan-Ray Frith, and Kevin Goetzger.  In an email to the school congratulating the Steel Hawks’ win, Ms. Brustein also expressed her gratitude to THHS alum Weijian Zhang who has helped roboticists on the team develop their coding skills. 

“The kids work so hard, the students push through all kinds of difficulty and to see it pay off and have a win is unbelievable,” Mr. Heitman, who is also the head coach of the Steel Hawks, said. “They just persevere. They really push through when things get tough.”

The team held an after-party after winning and the team has since had time to reflect on their accomplishments. “All of this feels so surreal, because on the first day that we came here, we were just finishing the robot and had no hope of winning,” said sophomore Brandon Tendilla. “We initially had the goal of reaching the highest rung, but after not finishing the climber mechanism, we were hoping that we could climb any rung. The second day, we hit the traversal and surpassed our expectations and won. It was a crazy and eye-opening experience and I am excited to be traveling to Houston for finals.”

Having used a wood-carved gear and a wired closet shelf to move the ball for their first robot, Ms. Brustein formed the Steel Hawks team along with former physics teacher Phillip Jones in 2008. Recalling the Steel Hawks’ humble origins, Ms. Brustein reflected on the team’s evolution throughout the years. “We came from no place,” she said.  She credited the team’s growth to their mentors and those who help build the practice fields for the robot. 

Echoing a similar sentiment, Mr. Heitman emphasized the inherited knowledge imparted through generations of collaborative learning as the key to the Steel Hawks’ success. “We’ve gotten more complex over the years because of where we were led those prior years by alumni and this group of students will lay down a foundation for future students,” he said. “When they graduate, they’re alumni and history will be laid into the books and the future generations of Harrisites will be able to use their path and make even more technological advancement here at Townsend Harris.”

The Steel Hawks will also compete in other robotics competitions, including those held in Long Island and New York City. Ahead of the Worlds competition, the team has high hopes. “I’m really excited about Houston and feel that we have a chance at winning,” senior and Programming Lead Nathan Lin said. “We’ll still be improving our robot and our understanding of the game, but I feel that even making it to Worlds is a sign of how much progress we made in such a short amount of time. However well we end up doing in Houston, I’ll always be happy that we made it as far as we did.”

This year’s competition, called Rapid React, was created by Boeing, the American aerospace company. Rapid React challenged teams to design innovative and sustainable transportation and delivery methods in order to facilitate growth in economies and promote interconnectivity among communities.