NYC kids return to robotics tournament for first time in three years after COVID-19 cancellations

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Only a handful of the 49 teams participating in this weekend’s NYC FIRST Student Robotics Tournament will advance to the National Finals later this spring in Houston — but for the hundreds of teens who congregate at The Armory in Washington Heights on Saturday, simply competing in person is A Victory.

The tournament – ​​which asks teams from across the city and region to design a new robot each year to compete in a game designed by the organizers – has been canceled for the past two years due to COVID-19.

For students like Salwa Omar, 17, a senior and member of the robotics team at John Dewey High School in Brooklyn, returning to competition means resuming her favorite activity.

“I have so much passion for it,” Omar said. “During quarantine, I missed it. It makes me feel productive, like I have a purpose.

This year’s competition involves having a robot shoot fuzzy balls through hoops of varying heights and soar them through a maze of bars.

Omar, who entered the last NYC FIRST competition in 2019 when she was just a freshman, said returning to robotics this year has been joyful but challenging. She had to hone her skills while showing the ropes to freshmen, sophomores and juniors who had never competed before.

“It was a bit difficult, but we were working hard,” she said. “We stay in school until 8 p.m.… go to school on Saturdays and Sundays.

For Omar, the best part of the robotics competition is “being creative, problem solving…it really gets your brain going. Being away from that for two years was really tough.

NYC FIRST Executive Director Michael Zigman said robotics competitions offer many of the same benefits as team sports.

“It’s being part of a team. In this case, it’s like a sports team but it’s like a sport for the mind. Coming together as a team is doubly better this year because it’s been taken away from them for so long,” he said.

As an added benefit, kids learn “engineering, math, physics, but in a joyful, fun, engaging and inspiring way,” Zigman said. It’s one of the reasons his organization is working to expand robotics to more schools in the city.

Between four and six of the top-performing teams in this weekend’s competition will advance to the Houston International tournament later this month.

“It’s not about how the robot behaves in the field,” Zigman said. “It’s the experience you get as a youngster that comes through that.”


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