Slater Junior High School in Pawtucket fielded a team called “Spartins.” From left are David Ofori, 16, Alec Goldberg, 16, and mentor Jayron Gonzalez, 18, pictured with their Spartins robot during the competition at New England Tech on Saturday.

WARWICK — Slater Middle School eighth-grader and Pawtucket native Maliek Rodrigues knows the world around him is changing. Technology, he says, is advancing day by day and hour by hour. To be up to the standards of what the future expects of him, Rodrigues knows just what it’ll take.

And it starts with a robot.

Rodrigues and two teams of fellow Slater students – “The Spartins” and “Leonidas” – were among more than 30 squads of middle and high school students from around Rhode Island who descended upon the New England Institute of Technology’s Automotive Campus Saturday for a day-long series of robot contests as part of the FIRST Tech Challenge Championship. FIRST stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.”

Rodrigues, who was priming his team’s robot for competition on Saturday morning, said that he’s of the mindset that robotics are key to his advancement. From engineering to coding to wiring, Rodrigues says that he and his fellow students have learned plenty from their courses and still have much more information to gather.

Madeline Chisholm, a robotics and science teacher at Slater Middle School and the school’s robotics coordinator, said that students are in the lab every day at the Pawtucket school, honing their craft and tinkering with their bots until they are to the exact specifications they’re seeking.

With Pawtucket home to many inner-city children who go home to very little, Chisholm explained that when the teens are in the lab, they get to experiment with things they never before had the chance – from designing the robot on paper to building it from scratch.

“They get to see the fruition of the creation when the robot moves,” Chisholm said. “Robotics is huge in Pawtucket. The high school kids come in to talk to the kids and help them out with engineering and design principles … From all aspects of engineering, what they do, it’s amazing.”

One of the mentors to the Slater teams was Shea High School junior Alec Goldberg. He said that his own experiences with learning the tools of the trade came from when he was in middle school and he was mentored by one of his elders.

“After realizing what having a mentor can do, I had to do the same and help the younger kids,” Goldberg said. “I remember being in middle school and being fascinated … Obviously, you learn about engineering but there’s also real life traits like perseverance, never giving up, teamwork.”

FIRST was founded in the late-1980s by inventor Dean Kamen, who sought to inspire students with an appreciation of science and technology through robotics.

The challenge that the teams were engaged in on Saturday was called “Relic Recovery.” It involves robots in two periods – autonomous and driver-controlled – removing colored jewels from platforms for points, creating patterns with neutral-colored glyphs, and parking their robots in a safe zone on the 12-foot-by-12-foot field in front of their alliance-specific boxes.

Brooke Cary, a junior at Lincoln High School, said that her interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) made participating in the school’s “Iron Lions” robotics team a no-brainer. She said she found the club to be “really into engineering and the processes to go back and fix it” if a problem arises.

Cary said that she’d like to pursue a career in robotics engineering or aeronautical engineering, noting that while she was into robotics, participating in the club has shown her how to work with metal, motors, and other physical aspects of the bots.

“You’re meeting people from all different schools,” she said of Saturday’s competition. “It’s teamwork, too. Even if you don’t like each other, you work together to get it done.”

Mount Saint Charles Academy senior and Cumberland resident Benjamin Dahrooge, who is in his second year with the “Mounties” robotics team, said he was a bit tentative at first to join the squad, fearing that he might not be “smart enough.” Those fears quickly subsided, as Dahrooge learned not only was he plenty smart, but the activity itself was “pretty fun.”

“What it teaches most is problem-solving in a high-stress environment...” Dahrooge said. “The values of engineering, problem-solving, there’s a lot of software, planning, documentation, it took a while to understand.”

A senior at Mount, Dahrooge has narrowed his college options to the University of Rhode Island and the University of Maryland, saying he’d like to study engineering or computer science when he enrolls in the fall. While he’s been coding since he was in middle school, Dahrooge said that the kind of coding for physical objects such as robots is miles different than the kind of coding for computers.

“There’s so much you can do with coding,” he said.

Follow Jonathan Bissonnette on Twitter @J_Bissonnette

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