Nighthawk Robotics Makes a Triumphant Return

MARCH 7, 2022

The robotics team had a phenomenal return to the FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) competition space this year after almost two years of not being able to compete.

Encouraged by their first place Inspire Award win at a qualifying match in December of 2019, the team was poised and ready to take their robot to the next level in the spring of 2020. Alas, with the arrival of the pandemic, their competition options were sidelined, but the 2020-2021 school year proved to be an excellent opportunity to work on skill building, technical prowess, and team spirit.

Finally, September 2021 arrived, and the team was all hands on deck to prepare for their first qualifying match of the year in December. For Evin Watson, computer science faculty member and robotics team advisor, being back in the Schoolhouse was essential to the success of the team—on multiple levels.

“Building robots is a hands-on process and being together with the materials is critical for that process. But being together isn't just important for the robot's construction, it is also important for the team members. It helps collaboration, and communication and for the younger students, who may not have found their place in the Schoolhouse and the in-person meetings are a time to be together with students who share their interests. Especially for the underclassmen, there is something tremendously valuable about having that time with the upperclassmen,” he said.

As a part of the FTC competitions, teams are required to build a robot that measures approximately 18”x18”x18”. This year’s robot was tasked with picking up wiffle balls and placing them in off balance stacking hubs. The team was fired up—being back building and competing in-person felt wonderful.

Team Co-Captain Zoe S. ’22 noted, “FTC competitions have a great energy to them! Everyone is always dressed up and dancing and celebrating. Of course, it was very challenging to come back from the pandemic (half our team had never done robotics “for real” before since we met online last year), but that made us more enthusiastic and excited to be back!”

After many weekday afternoons and many “Saturday builds” spent in the Makerspace, the team participated in the first qualifier of the season in early December. They placed 10th out of 15 and successfully won the Motivate Award—thereby ensuring their place at the next qualifier.

For Team Co-Captain Ilana P. ’22, being on the robotics team has encouraged her to explore deeper into the world of computer science, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. Participating in the competitions provided the opportunity to continue asking questions. “There was never a point at which I felt that our robot was completely done because there was always a way to do better. Some of my fondest memories come from calculating strategies during the competition with the other teams that we would meet, while bonding over our collective knowledge and insights about the competition,” Ilana said.

The final qualifier of the season took place at the High School for Construction Trades, Engineering, and Architecture in Queens on February 5. After an unbelievable day, the Nighthawks placed first for the Connect Award, which guaranteed their place in the city wide competition in March—marking the furthest the team had ever progressed.

“I remember that when it was announced that our team would be moving onto the next level—everyone was extremely excited. We were all shouting, jumping, and crying with joy while hugging each other. It was one of those moments where everyone on the team came together to celebrate our accomplishments and speculate about the future,” Zoe shared.

The competition on March 6 was strong, but the team held their own. Placing 17th out of 30 and taking home 3rd place for the Promote Award, the team finished out an outstanding season. This is especially notable because as Zoe noted above, over half of the team did not have prior experience with the material. She elaborated, “They developed their skill sets by directly engaging with topics that the competition goals lead us to find. We all learn by ‘doing!’”

Throughout the season, Mr. Watson was consistently impressed by the team’s drive to keep making improvements. He noted, “Between each competition, we made significant changes/improvements to the design of the robot. We competed three times this year and each time we had a robot that was significantly different. That took a lot of work and a willingness by the students to not be satisfied by their designs and keep pushing, which is important to have continued success as a team.”

Both Zoe and Ilana agreed that the wider robotics community has been incredibly supportive and they have worked to cultivate that same tight-knit community within the team at Nightingale. When they graduate in June, their leadership will be felt for years to come.

“I hope I’ve left the team with a spirit of learning together. My first year on robotics, the team was relatively new. As a result, we all had to learn how to do robotics together–we learned how to code by all coding together, how to build by experimenting together, etc. Since then, I’ve tried to encourage that same spirit of teaching that I experienced as a younger student. I would love to see the team continue this,” Zoe reflected.

Ilana noted, “I hope I left them with the motivation and belief that with hard work and perseverance they can achieve any of their goals! I know that being a leader of this team has been a huge learning experience, and I hope that in the future the captains and members will have more ideas on how to work more efficiently together as a team, communicate their ideas more effectively, and learn from our experiences and struggles. In the future, I hope our robotics team continues along the path of establishing our presence as a competitive team (that’s hard to beat!) to look out for in the future NYC robotics competitions.”

As the competition season came to a close, Mr. Watson was feeling immensely proud of the team and excited for what is still to come in the future. “The commitment the students make to this team is huge. Our season spans multiple athletic seasons and keeps students in the building late after school and on many weekends—and this commitment isn’t often known to the wider community. And while it may seem niche within our community, these are worldwide competitions that thousands of students compete in. At the end of the day, there is so much space for failure in the build cycle for a robot, that even the most simple robot is an accomplishment.”

To follow the continued success of the robotics team, be sure to follow their Instagram @nighthawk_robotics.