On a cold January Sunday things were percolating in an engineering lab at Columbia University as students from the 2 Train Robotics Team at Morris HS in the Bronx and their mentors were hard at work planning for the space-themed robot they will be building for the First Robotics competition this year. They’re scheduled to compete in the Central New York Regional in March and at the New York City Regional in April.
Along with current 2 Train team members and mentors from Columbia engineering, there were mentors and supporters from Bloomberg and Standard & Poor’s, and even some former 2 Train team members who came to do what they could to support the team’s annual effort of building an actual robot that competes with other engineering students from all over the world.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the 2 Train Robotics program at Morris and they will be celebrating with a gala in May. But to launch their anniversary season, this weekend the students spent their Saturday learning that the assignment from the national office to guide the robot they’ve got to build this year is Destination: Deep Space, meaning that what they design will have to follow that theme.
Then at a Sunday working brunch, in collaboration with their mentors, they studied the technical drawings and reviewed the strict rules and guidelines they’ll have to follow.
Gary Israel, who is a retired Morris HS teacher, but as founder and the program’s de facto guru, he is still quite active in Morris Robotics. He thinks this year’s space theme has generated excitement.
“It’s so relevant because 2019 is the 50th anniversary of the moon landing and there’s the Mars Rover and all the things that are going on in space today,” he told thisistheBronX on a break from the session. “The kids are really excited. I’m really excited.”
Adding to the excitement was the presence of a number of Morris Robotics alums who came to offer support and also commemorate two decades of a program that they say changed their lives.
Lori Gonzalez, an Ecuadorian who spoke no English when she entered the Bronx International HS on the Morris campus fifteen years ago, became a co-captain of the Robotics Team. She graduated in 2006 and just this week as the Construction Project Manager for Structural Enterprises Inc, she completed her latest project: the building of the Marriott TownPlace Suites in Times Square. Next, she says, she’ll be building a Mariott in the flatiron district.
She readily admits that 2 Train Robotics at Morris HS opened the door for her impressive career.
“It’s what made me choose to be an engineer,” she said. “In school, people pick on you because you’re a nerd because you like to study. But at 2 Train, I was accepted and I had a social life. It was okay to be who I am.”
Aside from the engineering training that gave her a leg up when she went to Lafayette College in Pennsylvania and later in what has become a highly sucessful career, she says the teamwork that’s an integral part of the Morris Robotics experience comes up every day in her work.
“I have to be able to manage different kinds of people and I know I don’t have all the answers. But I know people who do have the answers. So I’m a liaison between the designers, the builders, the bankers, and the ownership.”
Though Makeba Higgins, who graduated Morris in 2006, is not employed in engineering – she’s now an investment banker – she too, credits Morris Robotics for giving her the foundation to be successful.
“It changed my life,” she beamed. “It provided me with a lot of skills that I use to this day. Even though I’m not in the field of science and engineering, I got the camaraderie and the networking skills that I took with me into adulthood.”
There’s another aspect of the massive task of creating this robot each year that motivates the students: the competition.
“It’s different from most sports, but it’s still a sport,” said Demetrius Weathers who started with the team over the summer. “You have teams and rivalries. You go around the country for competitions, if you make it that far. I wasn’t very much into physical sports but I’ve always been more of an academic, so this is my way of getting into sports now.”
Justin Tavarez a 17 year-old HS senior said he was wide-eyed as a freshman when he first walked onto the Columbia campus, but in a telling moment of what the program does for Bronx students, he said that now at this prestigious Ivy League school he feels comfortable. “It’s like home,” he said.
That sort of growth doesn’t suprirse Bob Stark, the Lab Manager at Columbia’s Mechanical Engineering Department, who has been supporting the program since its first day 20 years ago. Yes, there’s tech training and enginering, he says, but this program has much larger impact on the participants.
“The emphasis is really on learning,” he said, “realizing how dedication and hard work will ultimately pay off in whatever field you ultimately go into. It’s teamwork, working with other people, and just opening up, getting outside your comfort zone.”
“I feel everyone should at least experience this because it’s an opportunity that not everyone gets,” Tavarez said. “So people should definitely look into it and see if it fits them because it’s great.”
ABOUT 2 TRAIN ROBOTICS – FRC team 395
2 Train Robotics is a FIRST® Robotics Competition team based at Columbia University and comprised of students from both Morris High School Campus in Morrisania and Columbia Secondary School in Harlem. Team 395 provides students with opportunities to pursue their goals in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). This is made possible by dedicated mentors and sponsors.