CHS Robotics Teams Heading to Nationals

Members of the Columbia High School robotics team show what their robot can do during competition. Credits: Steve Valenti
Allan Tumolillo, center, coach of the Columbia High School robotics teams, watches the competition. Credits: Steve Valenti

EWING, NJ -- The Columbia High School Robotic teams are headed to the national championships in St. Louis on April 24-27 after scoring a victory on March 10 at the state championship, the second time in the three-year history of the program that Columbia has taken the regional title.

“Neither team gave up, especially the JV team when it was hard to get their robot to move,” coach of the robotics team Allan Tumolillo said. “The varsity guys were good with them (junior varsity), saying their robot wouldn’t move for the longest time their first year and it kept getting better. They are learning, and the best thing you can say is they never gave up.”

The College of New Jersey hosted the contest. The teams, which were partnered with a team from Suffern, N.Y., won six of their seven matches in the final round.

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How the finals work is that after the preliminary round, the top seeds get to pick two other teams to join in an alliance to help them through the competition. Columbia’s varsity team was an alliance captain and chose the junior varsity team and the team from Suffern, N.Y., to be in their alliance.

“(The varsity is) a phenomenal team and (had) a great shot today but we will see how they do in St. Louis where every team is excellent,” Tumolillo said. “The JV team has made it in, has worked very hard to get here and almost all of them are first-year robotics types. They have learned the hard way through making things, not working, trying again and not working and that’s what engineering is -- to learn through failure rather than success.”

One of the biggest reasons for both teams’ success was their ability to work together, with the varsity team helping out the younger junior varsity team.

“The JV needs more,” varsity team member Kyle Rabago-Banjo said. “With the varsity team we just do; for them, you have to have to think more and explain how to do things. It gives it a bit more dimension to what we do.”

Jon Cotler of the junior varsity team credits the varsity team as the reason they were able to advance so far.

“Without them we wouldn’t be here today,” Cotler said. “They have helped us so much it’s crazy. They have told us strategy, what works what doesn’t. We would run designs by them and they will tell us it won’t work for reasons we didn’t even think of.”

Much of the work done on both of the robots was also done without the help of their adviser.

“What’s nice about it is I don’t have to do very much; they are all very smart kids,” Tumolillo said. “I take pride in the fact I don’t write code or design software. I will provide comments but I will not touch the machine.”

The hands-off approach by Tumolillo has helped the students gain a better idea of what they are doing while also teaching them new concepts.

“We have learned everything,” Cotler said. “We didn’t know anything at the beginning. I also learned a lot about mechanical engineering, which I thought I had an idea of but realized I didn’t.”

Both the JV and varsity teams qualified for the nationals.

“To start with a bunch of parts and to come up with a robot that can do whatever the game requires, is something most kids in high school can’t do,” Tumolillo said. “Eventually all kids can do it, but these are the kids that want to do it.”

The reporter is participating in a hyperlocal journalism partnership between The Alternative Press and Seton Hall University's Department of Communication & The Arts.

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