Robotics innovates around COVID-19 restrictions

Owen Gormley ’21 preparing his robot for a skills run at the Vexmen Downingtown Open robotics competition on January 16, 2021 – courtesy of Owen Gormley ’21

The pandemic has limited school activities and hit many extracurricular activities hard. Participation has dwindled, clubs send out fewer and fewer emails by the day, and the once lively Friday community period is gone. 

     Still, students in robotics have continued to build, code, and practice with an intensity comparable to past years.

     Even before the school officially gave robotics a timeslot from 2:45 to 4:30 to work, students organized meetings that followed COVID-19 guidelines at members’ homes. They also created pre-recorded videos that new members can use to learn about coding.

     Now that the robotics team has the opportunity to work in-person at school, their season has kicked off safely.

     “We’ve had the ability to expand [from the robotics room] a little bit out to the area outside of Ball Auditorium, which gives us just a little bit more space so that we can maintain social distancing,” robotics advisor Mr. Will Leech said. “We’re safe, which is quite reassuring.”

     These recently started practices still do not fill the void that the pandemic left. Although past practices outside of school have allowed members to work on their robots, they have had much less time than previous years, among other limitations.

     “Considering where we were this time last year, these boys would have invested hundreds of hours into their robots,” Mr. Leech said. “Now, the boys are lucky if they are reaching double figures at this time.”

     COVID-19 restrictions have also hit collaboration hard because the club has too many people to meet as a whole in the same space, making it difficult for upperclassmen to interact with Third Formers.

     “Just not being able to see the new kids, not being able to help them, [stinks],” Sixth Former Safa Obuz said. “The sense of community is much worse.”

     Others share the same sentiment. Fifth Former Elijah Lee believes the lack of full-team meetings has limited the group the most this year because they were so valuable in years prior.

     Despite these new challenges, robotics continues to grow and develop. Besides the coding videos, which Obuz says could potentially help students ten years from now, many improvements have been made to the club.

     “Tthe pandemic] has helped us work more efficiently in terms of equipment and parts,” Lee said. “It also forces us to work more efficiently when we are together because we have so little time.”

     Upperclassmen have also worked to offer the same amount of guidance to new members as years past, even though they can not meet each other in person as frequently. 

     “Robotics has a really steep learning curve, and it’s difficult to come in fresh,” Mr. Leech said. “It’s going to be even more challenging now, but our seniors and juniors have done some fantastic work supporting the boys.”

     This effort is felt by the latest additions to robotics like Third Former Dawson Baker. His transition to upper school robotics from middle school robotics was easy.

     “All of the upperclassmen and teachers in the upper school are really helpful,” Baker said. “All around, it has made robotics easy to learn and get my head around, and I enjoy it.

     Expectations for the school’s robotics team and its performance at competitions remain the same, but changes to these competitions have forced the members to adapt.

     “There are still competitions planned, but a lot of what we’re doing is focusing on the skills part of the competition, which is like a one-person version of the game,” Mr. Leech said. “As a result, there is less head-to-head competitive robotics that is usually our bread and butter and what we do best, so we have to improve that aspect.”

     Regardless of the changes and limitations this school year has brought to the club, members are making the most of the opportunities they have to build on the team’s history.

     “While there isn’t much we can do, the more hardships we face as a group, the stronger our bonds will be and the more we have to collaborate,” Obuz said. “This [school] year is difficult, but it will certainly be a year to remember.”