Youth robotics team helps fight pandemic after canceled tournaments

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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. (WETM) – A local youth robotics team rolls with the ups and downs amid the disappointment of a shortened season due to COVID-19.

Mechanical Meltdown, the Watkins Glen-based youth robotics team, recently experienced one of the “up” moments when they received a $7,500 donation from Cargill Incorporated. Each year the team goes through the entire engineering process as they design, build and program a new robot to perform different challenges. This contribution will be used to purchase parts, tools, software and equipment to assist with the students’ STEM education.

Mechanical Meltdown is part of the Excelsior FIRST Tech Challenge community, which consists of 110 teams and encompasses all of New York State except the 5 boroughs of NYC and Long Island. After a series of regional qualifying tournaments, 36 of those teams, including Mechanical Meltdown, earned advancement to the Regional Championship. The team was disappointed when that event, which had been scheduled for mid-March, was canceled as the Coronavirus began to show up in New York.

Mechanical Meltdown was among the 5 teams who had won both of the top awards, so they earned a spot to compete in the Detroit World Championship for the third year in a row. The team’s excitement soared, but then crashed again 2 weeks later, when the World Championship was also canceled along with all large gatherings across the country as the pandemic spread.

Although the team is unable to meet due to the lockdown, they continue putting their STEM skills to good use. As the world battles the Coronavirus, several team members are doing their part by using 3D printers to make protective face shields for hospital workers. Their efforts are part of a project organized by volunteers at Ithaca Generator.

One team member, Lucas Hunter, said he never imagined this outcome.

“One thing that I never thought I would be doing on a robotics team would be helping to save people’s lives,” said Hunter. “I thought I would just be having some fun building robots while learning different aspects of engineering.”

Hunter adds that he is also getting extra practice on the skills he learned at robotics.

“The fun thing about 3D printing is that it never works – you always have to be fixing it and testing new things and learning from people,” said Hunter. “I have been working through Slack with our FTC alumni mentor Trevor to troubleshoot the printer and work to get the best end result.”

The printers need to be checked about every two hours, and the youth faithfully keep this schedule as they also continue their schoolwork from home.

Lucas’ mother, Terrie, shared  her thoughts on seeing healthcare workers wearing the shields on the news and internet.

“When you see them, you know why you’re doing it,” said Terrie. “It makes you feel good.”

So far team members have produced over 300 face shields, which have been sent to the front lines in New York City. They plan to continue printing as long as the shortage continues.

Mechanical Meltdown is part of FLARE – Finger Lakes Area Robotics Education. The program is open to youth in grades 7-12, with current students from Trumansburg, Watkins Glen, Horseheads, and homeschoolers. For more information, call Kathy at (607) 546-2207 or e-mail ftcflare@gmail.com.

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