Editor's note: The writer's 10-year-old son competed for BrainBots.
Last spring, after the Columbia High School Robotics club came in second in the Lego First Tech World Championship Tournament, the team held an exhibition at the high school, hoping to lure younger kids to the challenge of robotics.
About 100 parents and kids attended that meeting, where the team showed off the kinds of missions they built and managed to program their award winning robot to do, inspiring younger kids to follow their lead.
"What these kids can dream up and do with robotics is amazing," said parent Larry Boyer, who is an engineer and one of the coaches in the South Mountain Robotics Club that took two teams to competition in November. "They are so creative and imaginative."
CHS team advisor and physics teacher Allan Tumolillo said at the time, the idea of the meeting was to get children children interested in forming teams earlier so that when they got to high school they'd be ready for the challenge and able to compete on an international level as well.
That meeting met its aim. According to a directory of First Lego League teams, out of 163 registered teams in the state, seven are from South Orange and two are from Maplewood. And two South Orange teams are headed this weekend to the State Tournament.
Recently the teams competed at several FLL competitions around the state with four South Orange teams competing in Clifton, N.J. and others competing in Hillsborough and in Jersey City.
Most of the teams at that FLL tournaments like the one at Clifton High School, were made up of middle schoolers except for a few, including the two from the South Mountain Robotics Club. Each competition is split into a few parts - robotics competition, teamwork and robot design and a project presentation on the topic (this year how robotics can help prevent food contamination).
The rookie teams from South Mountain Elementary - SoMoRobo and BrainBots - went to the Clifton competition hoping to learn more about robotics and succeed at some of the challenges. Both teams met that goal, and BrainBots scored enough points in the robotics portion to place 8th out of 22 teams, just behind teams from South Orange middle schoolers whose teams came in 5th and 7th. Judges told the BrainBots that it was so close, they just barely missed going to the state contest.
The Wyverns, one of the teams of SOMS students, came in 7th in the robotics competition, won the Rookie Inspiration Award and were chosen to compete this Saturday at the FLL State Championship in Flanders, N.J.
Another team of SOMS 7th graders called Brute Force, competed last weekend in Jersey City and won Outstanding Rookie team and was one of five teams sent on to the FLL State Championship.
"I am incredibly happy that the teams have been so successful," CHS's Tumolillo said. "I hope all of them eventually join the CHS team."
Another rookie team called Team Mahkak, made up of kids who attend school at Jefferson and Seth Boyden, competed in Hillsborough the same day as the Clifton competition and had a shaky start but a successful final round that bumped them up several places in the standings.
"We all screamed as if we had won the tournament," said Coach Doug Huebner, adding that the kids are already looking forward to next year, especially now that they know what to expect.
While the CHS Robotics team has sponsors, the younger teams are currently organized and paid for by parents and have been working in the basements and rec rooms of families around town instead of in space at the schools like a lot of the teams they go up against.
When the CHS Robotics Club was judged the second best team in the world last April - going up against experienced teams from all over the world - the club had been in existence for less than a year.
Tumolillo said organizers for First Tech Challenge (the high school level of robotics) told him that the goal for the first year is make a working robot. To win the Innovate Award, the State championship, the U.S. Division Championship and then second place in World championship is almost unheard of - and especially difficult for a team from New Jersey, where the competition is tough.
"New Jersey is considered one of the top three states in the U.S. for robotics,” he said.