Montclair Robotics to be classified as a team starting in 2023-24 school year
(KATE ALBRIGHT/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL)
Each week, members of the Montclair High School robotics club spend four to six days designing and building a robot. During lunchtime, after school and on weekends, they come together to plan how their robot will pass a series of challenges during competition.
For months they work on the robot, preparing it to compete against those built by high school students from around the world.
The club, with 68 members, is the largest STEM club at the high school.
While student dedication to the club remains unwavering, funding for it has been precarious. The Montclair school district’s budget does not include a consistent line item with funding for the club. Each year, Montclair Robotics has relied on funding from sponsors and a parent booster organization to make ends meet.
But the club must be given stable funding, club members say. That’s the only way to ensure that future high school students will have the same opportunities students have now.
“It has done so much for us, shaping us to be the critical thinkers and innovators we are today and shaping many of our alumni and their post-high school lives,” Montclair Robotics captain Serena Lee, a senior, said at a Feb. 22 Board of Education meeting. “It is critical that future Mounties have this opportunity.”
At the meeting, Lee and other members of robotics spoke in support of a status change, recategorizing the club as a team to ensure district funding. Teams at the high school are provided with guaranteed funds each year.
After the club members spoke, schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said he agreed.
“We invest in our football team, and invest in other teams,” Ponds said. “We need to invest in our robotics team.”
At the March 1 board meeting, Ponds announced the team status would be official for the 2023-2024 school year.
“I'm proud to say that in the fall, you have a budget,” he said. “You have transportation paid for, you will also have your equipment paid for. You are our team.”
Robotics will become the only non-athletic team at Montclair High School, David Cantor, the district’s executive director of communications and community engagement, said.
“Like all of our teams, robotics will now have its own annually recurring line in the district budget for coaching, transportation and its other expenses,” Cantor said.
Cantor has not directly responded to questions asking how much funding the club has received in past years, where that money has come from, and how much money the team will receive during the 2023-2024 school year.
Being part of Montclair Robotics has been central to the high school experiences of many students, but for senior Sylvie Wurmser, it has guided her post-graduation plans as well.
Wurmser, co-leader of the club’s build division, is heading to Harvard in the fall. Without robotics, she wouldn’t have gotten in, she said.
“We talk a lot about the power of engineering and coding,” she said. “But I think the most important thing about robotics is the desire to think outside the box and to create, which is kind of an intangible trait that you can't really learn in a lot of other activities.”
The robotics club sets its members up for success, providing opportunities for students of all grades, genders and races, Wurmser said. Club members of years past have gone on to attend prestigious universities, such as Yale, Princeton and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she said.
“STEM and robotics are typically white male-driven activities, and while we love our white males on the team, our team is a lot more than just that,” Wurmser said.
Of the team’s 68 members, 49% are male, she said.
The club’s racial diversity also mirrors that of the school: 53% of club members are white and 47% identify as not white, Wurmser said. At Montclair High School, 51% of students are white and 49% identify as Black, Hispanic, Asian or Pacific Islander, or mixed-race, according to enrollment data on the district website.
“Our team is a fair representation of the school in a way that even a lot of sports are not,” Wurmser said. “I love on the robotics team how diverse we are, and I love what that does for the team.”
Montclair Robotics competes each year in the global FIRST Robotics Competition. The season begins in January, when the year’s game is announced.
“We meet anywhere from four to six days a week until 5 p.m. after school and weekends for three hours or more,” senior Elliot Albright, head of the electronics division, said at the Feb. 22 meeting.
The club works for six to eight weeks designing, manufacturing and coding a robot before competitions begin, Albright said. The first competition of this season is Saturday, March 11.
But the club has been hard at work since the beginning of the school year.
In September, the club began training new members on the club’s five divisions – computer-aided design, build, electronics, code and business.
Sophomore Diego Aguirre, a member of the build division, has been competing in robotics competitions since he was in sixth grade at Glenfield Middle School, he said at the Feb. 22 meeting. The district’s middle schools also have robotics teams, competing in the FIRST LEGO League.
“While it was a great dive into engineering, it was a little bit basic,” Aguirre said of his middle school experience. “That's why I was so excited to join the high school robotics team – I was ready for the next step.”
But he felt nervous about the transition and was intimidated when he first joined the high school robotics club, he said.
“It's a very big jump from building with Legos to building with metal,” he said.
Immediately, his fellow club members began to help, teaching him to use the lathe, the mill and the chop saw.
“By the end of my freshman year, I could use almost all the machines in the shop,” Aguirre said.
And now as a sophomore, he’s continued to learn. Almost every day, he spends his lunch break in the shop, getting the robot ready for competition, he said. He’s also been helping freshmen, the same way upperclassmen helped him last year.
New members are not required to have engineering experience, and many join the club without having done robotics before.
For senior Peyton Yoo, becoming a part of the robotics community was something she had wanted since beginning her freshman year, at least indirectly. Yoo entered Montclair High School wishing to be a part of something, a part of a team.
“I wanted to work with my peers to achieve a common goal,” she said.
But it took some trial and error, Yoo said. Her freshman year, she tried sports, and “it didn’t really work out,” she said. She quit sports her sophomore year, but kept looking for community at the high school.
During her junior year, Yoo joined robotics. She is now a member of the computer-aided design division.
“It was exactly what I was searching for,” she said. “They welcomed me with open arms, they got me training, and they didn't make me feel small. They uplifted me and they pushed me to my full potential.”
While Yoo will graduate before the change to team status occurs, she is hopeful that the effects of the change will help Montclair Robotics continue to inspire and engage Montclair students.
“We are such a tight-knit community and team,” she said at the Feb. 22 meeting. “Robotics has changed not only my life, but so many others in this community.”
WHY TEAM STATUS MATTERS
For years, Montclair Robotics has been lobbying for team status, Lee said at the Feb. 22 meeting.
“In Montclair, we recognize our athletes for the time and efforts they dedicate to their crafts with set budgets and coaches,” she said. “It is time for Montclair to properly support our non-sports program, the accomplishments in STEM, and recognize the hundreds of hours students put into this team.”
In June 2022, Ponds told Montclair Robotics that the club would be granted team status during the 2022-2023 school year, Lee said. That did not happen.
“We hope, rather we need, for this current administration to make Dr. Ponds’ words a reality for the 2023-2024 school year,” she said.
Robotics needs a secured budget for materials, registration fees and coaches, she said. For the 2022-2023 school year, the district gave the club funding for materials from a federal STEM grant. Lee was unable to provide the grant amount.
Montclair Robotics gets its funding from sponsors, from The Friends of Montclair Robotics Booster Club and from the district. Lee was unable to provide the operating budget total, but said the total was in the “several thousands” of dollars.
“Robotics is more complex than a typical high school club, from our budget to the hours devoted to it to the complexity of the challenges we need to meet,” she said.