Rejuvenated robotics team makes River Forest's Roosevelt proud

Collaboration, confidence and code. Plus, a lot of fun.

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By Maria Maxham

Staff Reporter

They're smart and funny and engaging. Quirky, kind and respectful. They have adult conversations one minute, then laugh about pranking each other the next. They finish each other's sentences and, though they have different interests (golf, baking, theater, for instance), they share something in common: a passion for robotics.

They're the Roosevelt Middle School robotics team, and they've done some pretty incredible things this season, the second season the team's been together after a restructuring effort to reinvigorate the group, which is led by teachers Margaret Navolio and Charles Juister.

This school year, Roosevelt sponsored two FIRST Lego League (FLL) teams, the Roosevelt Rovers and The Bulldog Bricks, who advanced to the Einstein State Championships at Elgin Community College.

The teams competed at the Chicago South McKinley FLL qualifying tournament in December and were judged in four categories: Robot Game, in which the team's robot had to perform a series of missions; Innovation Project, where teams identified and solved real-world problems and shared them with community professionals; Core Values, in which the students exhibited inclusion, discovery, teamwork, innovation and fun during the season; and Robot Design, where teams explained strategies used in building and programming the robots to achieve the missions in Robot Game.

Sixth grader Elliott Stoker, a member of the Roosevelt Rovers who won the finalist award for their Innovation Project, said his team wanted to make something that would allow a person with disabilities to have fun at a playground, a place that normally they might not enjoy. His team's design, he said, was a small roller coaster, which could accommodate a wheelchair or a person without one.

"At first we thought of a swing," said Stoker. "But we realized that had been done before. We wanted to come up with something new and different." His team, he said, got into groups to brainstorm ideas, then voted to find the one they wanted to develop.

His favorite thing about the experience? "Expressing creativity and designing something you've dreamed of, and seeing it work," said Stoker, who plans to join the Robotics team again next school year.

Alex Ponzio, eighth grader, was on The Bulldogs Bricks team that advanced to the state competition. At the qualifying competition, his team developed an idea for an accessible crosswalk design for their Innovation Project during the competition.

"Our idea involved a keycard that people can get from village hall," said Ponzio. "With the keycard, they could scan a sensor that would lower bars to protect the crosswalk by keeping cars from going through. Once the person crossed the street, they could scan the sensor again, but if they forgot, the bars would rise again in 30 seconds."

He said his team came up with the idea by thinking about a problem that needed to be solved: the problem of deaths in crosswalks because cars didn't stop for pedestrians. They thought of other options, like underground tunnels, but those, said Ponzio, would be dangerous (collapsing could be an issue) or expensive.

Navolio said one of the benefits of the competition, aside from the technical skills the kids learn, is the public speaking aspect, since presenting ideas to the judges can be intimidating.

"It's a great opportunity for them to develop confidence in public presentations and speaking," Navolio said.

"I like public speaking," Ponzio said. "And there was a lot of teamwork involved. If one team member was talking but forgot what to say, there was always another one of us to step in and help."

Eighth grader Cece (who did not want her last name published) and seventh grader Tommy Pogue, both also on Ponzio's team, agreed that presenting with a team made a big difference. And Cece added that she noticed her confidence increasing from one presentation to the next. Pogue said that although he generally doesn't like public speaking or presentations, doing it with a team made it easier.

"We take speech class in school, and that helps too," added Pogue.

All the team members said the competition was an incredible experience.

"The competition seemed scary at first," said Cece. "But it was actually a lot of fun. It was not what I expected at all. The judges wore silly hats to help the teams feel less stressed." She mentioned a flamingo hat and a Shrek hat.

Both Cece and Ponzio, who will graduate at the end of this school year, said they'll miss their team at Roosevelt a lot.

"I really enjoy the friendships and just hanging out," said Cece. "Sometimes we just have fun and act like idiots, but we put in the work and made it to state." Her favorite part of being on the team, she said, is Saturday practices. "We always have donuts," she added.

Pogue said he likes to make cookies for the meetings too. "We're both bakers," said Cece of herself and Pogue, and they debated whether the lemon cookies from a recent Saturday had been too tart.

She hopes to continue robotics in high school, though she's not sure how it will fit into her schedule, which will include school plays and other activities. Ponzio's response was similar; if golf didn't get in the way, he'll definitely join robotics at Fenwick, where he plans to go next year.

Juister said he sees such value in robotics for kids this age because it's an opportunity for students to be successful in something other than sports.

Juister quoted Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway and of the FIRST Robotics Competition: "You have teenagers thinking they're going to make millions as NBA stars when that's not realistic for even one percent of them. Becoming a scientist or engineer is."

"Kamen started the program to provide a great opportunity for kids to be recognized for something other than athletics," said Juister. "And with the team we have, with the challenges the kids are given, the sky's the limit. I'm always impressed by what they come up with."

Although proud of themselves for making it to the state competition, the kids were also proud of the name they'd come up with for their robot, a combination of lots of different ideas they considered: Mr.JerryRobertoEV3.the543rdthe2nd.

On the FIRST Inspires website, the official website of the FIRST Robotics organization, the code of conduct for students participating in events is given. One of the ideas the organization wants to instill and see in participants is "Gracious professionalism" at all times. The concept is defined as "a way of doing things that encourages high-quality work, emphasizes the value of others, and respects individuals and the community."

It appears this quality is strong in the Roosevelt Middle School robotics team.

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