SPARTA, NJ - Sparta High School was once again taken over by robots on Saturday.  The Sparta robotics team hosted a VEX competition of about 50 teams, nearly twice as many as last year's inaugural Spartan competition, according to team member Julia Lopez.

Sparta had five teams competing, including a large number of girls.  This is remarkable considering just last year there were only a few girls in the program.  It was only a couple of years ago that the first girl even completed the Robotics 2 class. 

"There are a lot of girls competing this year, last year there were only five," Julia Muth said.  "Last year a whole lot took Robotics 1 [prerequisite for Robotics club].  We reached out and really encouraged them to join.  There are also some eighth grade girls coming up."

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"Robotics offers the opportunity for kids to advance at the technical level," Coach and Robotics Teacher Mark Meola said.  "It requires critical thinking for real problem solving; looking methodically at problems and creating solutions, with research and design and then actually proving the solution by building a working robot."    

"I think robotics gives us good experience into what it's like to be an engineer," Evan Marcino said.  "We take a real problem, work with a group of people and are on our own to solve it.  I think, by far this has done more for me than any class."

Marcino plans to pursue Mechanical Engineering.  A senior, he has already been accepted into his "first choice of Rowan which is ranked 22 in the country for engineering,"  as well as Rutgers University Computer Science program and NJIT.   

While it sounds like learning and work, the students seem to have a different understanding. 

"For me, Robotics is a release from the rest of the day," Alex Poret said.  "It is a form of relaxation and stress relief.  Though it may sound odd for one to use science and math as a break from, well, more academics, physically building something is invigorating. The entire challenge is a logic puzzle, one I can immerse myself in and forget about the rest of the world."

"I think one of the best things about robotics is the work, strangely enough," Nicole Kwon said.  "It's great working with my group, building our robottogether from scratch."  While Kwon is not certian what she will study after high school, she will "probably go somewher int e science field.  I've always had a passion for biology and chemistry."

"I enjoy the environment," Muth said.  "We have fun.  It's competitive but it's also fun.  You become a family by the end of the year."

Sophomore Grace Masterson agree and plans to stay with robotics. "I have gotten to meet a lot of new people and make new friends that have the same interests."

Sarah Ramos, a senior, has applied to "a bunch of east coast school," where she plans to study engineering.  "It's cool," she said.  "Being in the team has solidified what I already thought I knew" about being an engineer.  She also likes the competition.  "It's nice to get recognition."

While many on the team have aspirations of continuing into the engineering field.  "Mechanical engineering is obvious," Meola said.  It is more than that, however.  The critical thinking, problem solving skills translate to other areas, according to Meola.  

While Kwon is not certain what she will study after high school, she will "probably go somewhere in the science field.  I've always had a passion for biology and chemistry." Kwon also plays viola and karate.

Poret plans to "pursue a degree in bioengineering with a focus on microbiology and the microbiota." She also plays viola, participates in the Sparta High School biodiesel club and did a summer internship at Rutgers working on neonatology research.

Two sophomore team members do not plan to be engineers.

Lucie Wolfson intends to go into the biomedical field.  "Using the technology and programming skills from robotics, will really help with that field."

Sophomore Hailey Koerner, also plans to follow a different path.  Agreeing she said, "Computers and problem solving will be useful in dentistry."

Planning to go the Mechanical Engineering route senior Lopez has "applied to colleges all over."  Her passion for robotics began in the classroom.  "I got involved early with Engineering classes and Robotics classes and it hooked me. It's social and fun.  It also covers the basics of how to code and design," Lopez said. "You don't need to know anything before you start.  It's good for everyone."

The VEX competition is based on a challenge announced just after the previous world competition in the spring.  The announcement outlines the parameters of what the robots will have to be able to do.  This year the bots had to lift two different objects over a wall, depositing them into one of two sections on the other side.  A cube pillow and an oversized jack have different point values as does the landing area over the wall. 

There are two types of bot  play on the field, autonomous or driven though both require programming.  In the spring, the students begin to digest the new challenge, according to Meola.  Then in the fall they begin creating prototypes and programming.  They even do some early scouting to see the designs in the real world.  Throughout the process the bot evolves. 

In addition to the working robot there are several other elements that are judged.

 The team members are evaluated  on team work, how well they work together and  know what they are doing.  The teams must keep an engineering journal , cataloguing their journey from concept to competition.  They are interviewed and judged on their ability to articulate the project as detailed in the journal. 

Innovation, Design and Excellence are all categories can earn a team a slot in the state competition.  For the Innovation award judges identify some unique aspect of the robot that cause it to stand out.  For the Design award, teams are rewarded for having an exemplary Engineering Journal.  The Excellence award goes for overall performance; how the bot was designed, built and executed, the teams skills and the journal.

There is also a Judges award for best technical interview.    

The Sparta teams finished 10 on Saturday, losing in the first round of finals.  They have several more competitions to go in this year's season.