A robot built by members of the Trenton Catholic Academy robotics team, the Iron Mechs.  Courtesy photo
A robot built by members of the Trenton Catholic Academy robotics team, the Iron Mechs. Courtesy photo

Educators at Trenton Catholic Academy say school robotics clubs can equip students with lifelong learning skills.

They would know – they’ve seen it firsthand.

“This is truly an impressive group of young engineers who are destined to change the world for the better,” said Dana Sudziarski, co-moderator of the Iron Mechs, the Hamilton school’s robotics team.

The team was formed about 10 years ago as a successful extracurricular activity in the Lower School. Continued interest and participation led to the development of a high school team in the Upper School in 2015.

“This program develops 21st century learning sills of critical thinking collaboration, communication and creativity,” said Michael Knowles, TCA president and Iron Mechs co-moderator.

“This program has evolved from just a few students to between 20-25 students each year. We have full corporate sponsorship to fund the effort along with significant engineering mentorship. The most significant evolution has been for student ownership of all aspects of the team,” Knowles said.

For example, over the past two years, the Upper School team has expanded responsibilities to include coding, engineering, business and marketing.

“It’s award-winning,” Knowles said, noting that after graduation, a number of high school students have gone on to pursue studies in engineering and other technology fields.

Added Sudziarski, “The students have developed a business section of the team that deals with public relations and marketing. This year, the team completed [an] official business plan, which included the development of our mission and vision statements.” 

Last year, the team’s participation in the FIRST Robotics Competition was cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic, and they did not have the opportunity to compete with the robot they spent weeks building. The FIRST event – For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology – is an international high school robotics competition.

This year, the competition was virtual, and though the team was able to use their completed robot, they were tasked to make it perform challenges on its own.

Sudziarski explained, saying, “The team had to read manuals, game codes, and create a playing field using specific requirements. We are now competing in five skill challenges where three are autonomous. In [those] challenges, students used their coding knowledge to program the robot to drive specific courses autonomously.”

While the pandemic has presented a different set of challenges for the team, Knowles acknowledged, “In a way, this year has provided an opportunity for students to be more focused and engaged given the change in the competition season and it’s allowed the team to explore other areas of robotics.”

One of the team captains, senior Francini Cruz, is proud of how the robotics program at TCA has grown.

“Engineering and robotics is generally a male-dominated field, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t learn and try new things,” she said. “One of my goals as captain was to expand the team. I wanted to build a team that does outreach and inspires young girls and accepts everyone in any capacity, whether it be in engineering or marketing.”  

Her sister, Frankeila, is a freshman. Seeing how much her sister enjoyed robotics, she decided to give it a try. Her first year included fundraising efforts that earned about $800 for the team.

Junior Maria Lima said that her team membership helped her to hone her business and marketing skills, then proudly added that she was able to practice marketing by finding a business to serve as a team sponsor. The team sponsor, she said, donated $500.

Junior Sebastian Noble, who helped to build the robot last year, was interested in helping with public relations saying, “It’s important to get our robot ‘out there’ and let our sponsors know what we have done.”

Freshman Anthony Morales and junior Michael Rizzuto recalled participating in the Junior Iron Mechs when they were students in TCA’s Lower School.

While Morales said his experience on the team has fostered his desire to pursue a career in computer science, Rizzuto feels his membership has better prepared him to serve the team as a programmer.

“In the Lower School, I learned the basics of programming,” Rizzuto said. “Now through this experience in the Upper School, I can code and read code. This team has given me a lot of experience and tools that I can use in the future.”