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Idle for years, Salem High School's FIRST robotics team continues to grow

Union Leader Correspondent

March 04. 2018 11:02PM

Salem High School sophomore Joseph Darisse, left, and Adrian Sperl, a junior, work Friday morning on the FIRST Robotics Team No. 6324 entry for an upcoming competition. (CHRIS GAROFOLO/Union Leader Correspondent)

SALEM — It’s challenging enough to get teenagers out of bed before noon on a weekend, much less a vacation day.

But on a cool and rainy Friday morning, a dozen Salem High School members of the FIRST Robotics Team, No. 6324, happily returned to the classroom during their February break to finalize all the electrical, programming and mechanical matters related to their milk crate-launching droid.

“Sometimes getting a commitment level out of teenagers is tough,” said Heather Melito-Dezan, a parent mentor with the team. She and her son Kolby, a sophomore and robotics team member, arrived at the high school around 10 a.m. with a handful of eager young engineers and mathematicians.

“These kids are here during build season on a day-off to work together, they take this seriously,” she said. “They are committed.”

And it is quite a commitment — the team meets at least twice a week from September through December for about two hours each day to prepare for the upcoming season.

At the beginning of January, they learn the guidelines of their engineering challenge through the FIRST Robotics competition, a rigorous skill-based tournament that pits teams against each other to build and program a robot to perform a prescribed number of tasks. This year’s competition objective is to pick up milk crates with a robotic arm and launch them into designated areas.

The workload only ramps up from here. Members meet for about five hours after school twice a week and a full seven hours on Saturdays from the first week in January through mid-February, when they pack up their bot for the FIRST competition.

Salem junior Adrian Sperl was attracted to the team because of his love for math and science.

“I think there’s a lot of learning, a lot of problem-solving with engineering. I think that’s good to learn about,” said Sperl, who was down on all fours Friday morning in the school’s recently renovated engineering suite to solder on parts for the robot’s intake system.

He and five other students circled their robot to complete a programing task. A handful of other teammates worked in a nearby computer lab on their website, others printed out No. 6324 team banners before a big competition over the weekend.

Nicholas Payne, a recent Salem graduate now studying at Northeastern University, returned to his old classroom Friday to “continue doing what I love” and help his friends progress with their high school career.

“There’s the math component that’s super involved, and building robots is always a fun thing to do, but also you’re working with all these people for 20 hours a week and you really get to know people,” he said, wearing a blue polo shirt with the robotics team name embroidered on it.

The program had been once-loved but forgotten for almost two decades before incoming engineering teacher John Seeman revived it.

Since rebooting the robotics team in September 2016 with about 10 students, the program has more than doubled in size and took home Rookie All Star honors at the New England FIRST District Championship, with an invitation to the 2017 World Championship in St. Louis, Mo.

That early success and plenty of word-of-mouth through parents and teachers led to rapid growth in recruitment and community participation.

The team last summer participated in Salem/Pelham’s Relay For Life and the annual SalemFest, showcasing its robot from the 2017 competition season at both events.

The FIRST program has expanded further outside of the high school, helping to implement similar educational opportunities at the lower grade levels. Many of the elementary schools in Salem have started FIRST Lego League programs for fourth graders, where they learn to program lego robots after building them.

“With the participation on the programs at the elementary and middle school levels, we expect that to carry over to the high school team in the future,” Melito-Dezan said. “Our FIRST program has grown from eight-to-10 kids just in robotics to this year having spawned a middle school program of about 60, which we hope is a feeder-up to robotics.”

FIRST — For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology — was founded in 1989 by New Hampshire’s own Dean Kamen to encourage more young people to pursue careers in the STEM fields, a common acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The inaugural FIRST game was in a small gymnasium in 1992, now millions of students from more than 30 countries compete across four levels of tournament play, from LEGO junior leagues for kindergarteners up through the highly competitive high school teams.

One of the newest members is freshman Lauren Ross, who joined the robotics team with friends after she found the members to be very friendly and open.

Ross strolled around Friday morning snapping photos and helping set up the team’s online presence.

“It was so much fun to get involved and learn about mechanics and that kind of stuff,” she said. “It’s a field that’s traditionally dominated by men … I feel like it will make more women want to join when they see girls already involved with it. It’s cool to get more girls in the STEM fields, make them see that they can do it too.”

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