When Dr. Arco Jeng started a robotics club at Golda Och Academy in West Orange last year, the science teacher and former pharmaceutical professional saw it as just another part of what he considered a “retirement” gig.
“I thought the students would just come for an hour twice a week after school,” he said.
What he didn’t foresee was how quickly it would become a passion for the students, and how they would begin to excel. The twice-a-week get-togethers turned into almost daily sessions, with the students spending their lunch hours in Jeng’s laboratory. The students took on the technical and organizational tasks set by First Tech Challenge, a high school robotics program, and rapidly climbed the ranks of competing schools in FTC contests.
In early February, the GOA CodeRunners, as they call themselves, qualified for the state championship, held March 2 at New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark.
When a reporter visited the club before the competition, the students were fastening screws, adjusting gears, and fine-tuning electronic settings on their pride and joy, robot 6936.
Actually, they were at work on two robots — the original and a souped-up version. “We don’t have enough parts to build a totally new one, so we’re taking bits from the old one,” club president Ben Soudry explained. “If the new one doesn’t work better, we can still go back to the original.”
The team didn’t win the March 2 bout, but Jeng was already elated by what the team had achieved. It vindicated his successful effort to convince FTC to open up its contest schedule so a Shabbat-observant team could compete. Instead of offering meets only on Saturday, they introduced Sunday sessions.
So far, GOA, a beneficiary agency of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, is the only Jewish day school in the area to get involved with robotics, but Jeng is hoping others will launch similar programs.
“I’m really thankful to FTC and the other organizations involved in New Jersey,” he said. “They were very supportive about making changes to help a Jewish day school participate. Hopefully, we’ve proved that it was the right decision and that they’ve been impressed by the quality achieved by this rookie team.”
Only boys have signed up for the club so far, though, Jeng said, he has encouraged girls to join, and the team member handling outreach, Elan Footerman, said he knows of a few who are interested.
A few seniors were in the club, but they have left for a semester in Israel. Now, most of the members are juniors, with a few sophomores, like Rafi Jones, the team coach. They said their president, Ben, has the broadest range of skills. “If we could just clone a whole lot of Bens, we’d be unbeatable,” one of them declared, though Ben himself — despite Jeng’s mention that he is also a talented science student — quietly brushed aside the notion.
Adam Shapiro, GOA associate head of school and upper school principal, said he is proud of the team’s achievements. “What educator wouldn’t be thrilled to see their students working like this,” he said, “problem solving, collaborating, showing critical thinking — and having fun doing it?”
He and Jeng both welcomed the social skills that FTC stresses in addition to the engineering skills required to build a robot that can pick up objects, hoist a flag, and scale a ramp. In contests, teams are judged not just on those actions but also on how well members work with one another and with other teams, and on their outreach to a broader population.
“We scored really well on the support part,” Footerman said. “The people cheering for us from the bleachers were so loud, they won us extra points.”