Friday, January 25, 2008

Staten Island 'Robotics' group goes for LEGO League Championship

Friday, January 25th 2008, 4:00 AM

Oates for News

Members of Intermediate School 72’s Robotics team are setting their sights on winning the city’s FIRST LEGO League Championship.

On Saturday morning, Staten Island's Rocco Laurie Intermediate School 72 Robotics team will head back into "The Pit."

Looking to return to the winner's circle for the first time in two years, the 13-member IS 72 squad will face off with teams from 79 other city schools at Riverbank State Park in Manhattan in the New York City FIRST LEGO League Championship. FIRST is an acronym for For Recognition and Inspiration in Science and Technology.

The winning team will represent New York in the international championships, to be held in Atlanta's Georgia Dome in April.

The championships "are very exciting," said Nicholas Anderson, a 13-year-old eighth-grader who was on the school's 2006 Robotics team (the school also won the citywide competition in 2004) sent to the international championships in Atlanta.

"You spend all day running around doing things and meeting people," he said.

This year's competition already has had lasting benefits for some Staten Island residents, and could have even more.

As part of the community service requirement of the competition, the Robotics team, in conjunction with Hewlett-Packard, this month collected 5,000 pounds of old computer equipment for recycling, said team coach Randi Huss, an IS 72 school counselor.

Robotics research team members Thalia Collazo, 13; Eileen Diih, 13; and Heather Platt, 12, also have mounted a program to convince a host of sponsors to financially back an effort to help Staten Island's 60-year-old Jacques Marchias Museum of Tibetan Art go completely green.

Under the proposal, created after students conducted an energy audit of the building, companies would install solar panels, energy-efficient double-paned windows, a windmill and a rainwater recycling system system at the museum.

"Right now, the museum has to close in January because it costs so much to heat the place," said Diih, part of the team of students that did the energy audit of the institution last year.

"We asked the Andersen Window company if they would replace the museum windows with double-pane glass for free," Platt explained. "They are considering it. We estimate that new windows would save them 25% to 50% on their heating bills."

Built of fieldstone to resemble a Tibetan monastery, the museum at 338 Lighthouse Ave. contains one of the largest collections of Tibetan Art in the country and has been visited by the Dalai Lama.

"This is a wonderful building that needs some upgrades," said museum director Meg Ventrudo. "The windows are one of the capitol improvements that need to be done."

She said Andersen has not committed to replacing the windows yet, but added, "We'd love it if that were the case."

IS 72 Robotics team members include sixth-graders Branden Collazo, Rohan Patel and Kevin Weedagama, seventh-graders Kevin Sheridan, John Guarco, Matthew Cassidy, Andrew Neil and Louis Matrone and eighth-graders Anderson, Collazo, Diih and Mayuran Sivakumar.

Besides Huss, team coaches and science teacher Olympia DiSpigna, social studies teacher David Colasanto and parent Christine Anderson - Nicholas' mother. Assistant Principal Peter Garein is also a big team supporter, Huss said.

Several high school students who were on the winning 2006 team also act as advisers to the squad, Huss said.

First LEGO League competitions are intended to improve students' critical thinking, design and problem solving skills.

Using LEGO's "mindstorm" system, the teams design, build and program LEGO robots to perform 41 different tasks within 2-1/2 minutes. Instructions for each task are downloaded from a computer into the robot's control module.

The robots have to work within the parameters of a community grid laid out on a table top - the dreaded Pit. Each event is timed, with points being awarded for speed and degree of difficulty of the assigned task, such as moving a bridge so it straddles the river, or removing nuclear waste barrels from the local power plant.

"It's a lot of fun," said Sivakumar, 13. "I had so much fun on the team last year that I wanted to come back this year and do it again."

Two team members operate the robots while a third observes the competitors, who are performing the same tasks on a nearby table. Best times move on to the next round, with winners named after three rounds.

Competition is spirited and, well, intense. The IS 72 team asked that this article remain vague on any robot manuevers this writer observed for fear of tipping off their competition.

Expect more of the same tomorrow.

"Bring earplugs," Huss said. "You can't believe how loud it gets in there. The kids are really into it."

NO MATTER the outcome tomorrow, Huss said, her team has already won big.

"I am so proud of these kids, who come from all ethnic backgrounds and intellectual levels," she said. "They all work hard on this team and for the team."

The New York FIRST and First LEGO League championships will kick off at 8 a.m. tomorrow with registration and robot inspections at Riverbank State Park, 145th Ave. and the Hudson River. Awards ceremonies are scheduled for 2:30 p.m.

For information about the competition and the LEGO league, go to

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