Niskayuna robotics team shares knowledge at MiSci

The Niskayuna robotics team poses for a picture with curious young scientists and, of course, their robot. Photo by Rebecca IsenhartThe Niskayuna robotics team poses for a picture with curious young scientists and, of course, their robot. Photo by Rebecca Isenhart
The Niskayuna robotics team poses for a picture with curious young scientists and, of course, their robot. Photo by Rebecca Isenhart

The Niskayuna robotics team poses for a picture with curious young scientists and, of course, their robot. Photo by Rebecca Isenhart

By REBECCA ISENHART
Gazette Reporter

SCHENECTADY — MiSci, the Museum of Innovation and Science, had teamwork and technology to go along with science and innovation during the four-day festival for budding scientists that concluded Sunday.

There were so many demonstrators that some special programs were held in a large tent, outside the packed museum. The parking lot overflowed and, at times, the admissions line reached the door.

Inside, one especially popular booth housed the Niskayuna High School robotics team.

The group set up cups and plastic bottles as obstacles inside an arena marked off by masking tape, then generously handed kids the controller to one of their most prized possessions: their robot.

The event was supposed to be a scrimmage involving several other local robotics teams, where the high school students would engage in friendly competition while visitors watched.

Niskayuna’s would-be opponents had to change their plans, but the children hardly seemed disappointed; they were having fun trying it for themselves.

Robotics team member Darius Irani was OK with it, too. He said community outreach is as important to the robotics team as competitions are.

“We just want to excite people with robots,” he said.

The team had stripped down the remote-controlled robot to make it tough to break, but young test drivers were doing their best to test it.

Occasionally it would zoom over the masking tape boundaries, cross under the table that held presentation materials, and entangle itself in someone’s ankles as parents apologized and rushed to help out. The team members just smiled.

The idea of building and programming a piece of technology sounds daunting, but Irani said he hopes kids who grow up with it will not be intimidated.

“They can shoot to be part of something in the future,” he said.

A Niskayuna robotics club member shows a brother and sister how to maneuver a robot around obstacles at the Science Festival of the Greater Capital Region this weekend. Photo by Rebecca Isenhart

A Niskayuna robotics club member shows a brother and sister how to maneuver a robot around obstacles at the Science Festival of the Greater Capital Region this weekend. Photo by Rebecca Isenhart

Even if the other teams had been able to attend the festival Sunday, the atmosphere at the robotics booth would have been just as pleasant. Regional robotics teams like the one at Niskayuna High School operate under the rules of FIRST Robotics, a non-profit organization that facilitates robotics competitions, sets the ground rules for those competitions, and provides science and technology grants.

Irani said the relationships between teams are more complex than those of opponents in other games or sports. FIRST encourages “gracious professionalism” and “cooperation,” he said, which means teams are more focused on friendship and solving problems together than on winning.

“There are a lot of teams that help us out, and we help others out,” team member Yogi Kanakamedala said.

It was clear the team felt disappointed they couldn’t spend the day tinkering alongside their local robotics friends, but they seemed to enjoy handing kids the reins just as much.

Irani suggested in the near future, playing with a robot may not seem so novel. In just two or three years, he said, the number of competitors at FIRST Robotics competitions have exploded.

“Every year the competition is harder and harder,” he said. “There’s a huge growth.”

That’s been true at Niskayuna, too. Participation in the robotics program has grown to about a dozen competitive team members, plus as many as 30 recreational club participants who just show up after school to build and learn.

Team member Andrei Akhmetov had a comforting word for those who still find the idea of building a robot entirely overwhelming: Rely on your team.

“It’s modular, so no one needs to know the entire thing in total,” he said.

Still, Akhmetov said, even a club that feels like so much fun can become the foundation for future innovation — potentially the kind that’s literally out of this world.

“It’s going to help you when you’re making something that’s going to be on Mars,” he said.