GLOCESTER – Consisting of students from various career and college educational pathways, the Ponaganset High School Robotics Team is headed to the regional FIRST Robotics Competition in Bridgewater, Mass., this weekend.
Also known as the Gongoliers, the team was named after its two mentors, PHS teachers Greg Gongoleski and Greg Coffey, who moonlights as a gondolier in the summer. The extracurricular activity, based on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) learning, started in 2013 at the request of students, and currently includes 39 students from pathways ranging from engineering and computer science, to arts and design.
Nicole Dugas, PHS sophomore, said interest in the program from a diverse group of students is due to the variety of roles the club offers.
“We have many assigned tasks, from the Board of Directors to build, design, media, programming, controls, to scouting and greeting at the competitions,” she said. “We also have a lot of talented artists.”
Former Gongoliers still come and assist the new generation in preparing for the upcoming competition. One such student, Kyle Corey, a sophomore studying computer science at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, had been on the team since its inception, but graduated from PHS after three years on the team.
Corey continued mentoring through his college career, and said the skills he learned in the Gongoliers, as well as in his engineering and computer science pathway, prepared him for college, but also a life in mentorship.
“Before I left, I taught them everything that I learned and they needed to know. A lot of the skills, such as the basics of solving problems, I still use to this day,” Corey said.
Rhode Island Department of Education Commissioner Ken Wagner said that PHS has done an amazing job setting pathways for students. Wagner worked on the Prepare Rhode Island initiative to work with schools and businesses to build pathways with the skills employers are seeking.
“Students put it together and build something, say, a robot,” he said.
PHS senior Sam Hopkins said he feels he is already ahead of the curve because of what he has learned in his engineering pathway and the robotics club.
“I’ve loved the engineering aspect of the build. I’m already ahead because I’m already doing engineering,” Hopkins said.
Entering its fifth year of competition, the Gongoliers prepared a robot that can accomplish several tasks, including lifting boxes up to six feet high. And the team only had a six-week period to design, build, code, and test the machine after FIRST competition released challenge instructions Jan. 6.
To make the deadline, Gongoleski said the students have shown great dedication, some working up to 40 hours a week during the build period.
“These kids give up nights and weekends, staying after school every night and both weekend days,” he said.
The team is traveling to Bridgewater, Mass., on March 9-11, and will again compete in the Rhode Island District Event March 23-25 at Bryant University.
Since the first robot the team built, the Gongoliers name each after ancient gods. This year, the team elected to name the bot, “Aristaeus,” the Greek god who protected various skills and arts, particularly cheese making.
Cameron Leach, Gongolier and PHS senior said the name fit the robot because the team needed to drill out a “whole bunch of holes” in the robot’s aluminum frame in order to make weight limits.
“Like Swiss cheese,” he said.
Each of the older robots sits near Aristaeus, and Cameron points to the original. It is down to an aluminum frame and a handful of wires. He said the team re-uses parts constantly to keep costs down.
“There’s a little part of him in all of our robots,” he said.
Coffey said what he is most proud of is the students adhering to the competition’s goal of “gracious professionalism,” working together well, but also working to help other teams during competitions.
“The competition works on the honor system that everyone will obey the rules. We work very much by the books, and like to believe everyone else will too,” Coffey said.
FIRST Robotics Competition, the same nonprofit that runs the FIRST Tech Challenge, is open to high school students and described as a “sport of the mind.”
FIRST encourages mentorship and the development of science, engineering, and technology skills in students through robotics and Lego competitions nationwide.