Fitch robot-makers get ready for state-level competition

Groton - Members of the Aluminum Falcons, Fitch High School's robotics team, won't receive their challenge until January, but that doesn't mean they haven't been working hard.

At weekly meetings in the physics classroom of adviser Brian Chidley, the group of about 30 students and a handful of mentors, most of them engineers at Electric Boat, are working to master computer software that will be needed to program and design the robot.

"We're just trying to reflect on last year and think of ways we can improve on the robot from last year, even though we don't really know what the challenge will be," said junior Zoe Yopp, in her second year on the team.

The group is also focused on raising enough money for equipment, T-shirts and travel to a statewide competition in Hartford.

"You can really see the kids learning things actively, especially in areas like mechanical engineering," said mentor Paul Kelleher, a Navy physician whose son was on the team last year. "They are really improving their skills through trial and error. They have a really complex design to work on - it's not just a big toy, it's an 80 pound machine."

Though the team has participated in the FIRST Robotics competition for several years, Chidley said this is the first year the team appears poised to be truly competitive. It is benefiting from the institutional memory of several years' experience, and the club has two new mentors with a combined 16 years' experience in robotics competitions.

"In the past couple of years, the team has kind of ambled along," Chidley said. "Last year was the first year we really knew what we were doing. In previous years, the goal was just to get the robot built and go to the competition in Hartford. Now we're looking at being a competitive force."

The statewide competition gives awards for the best design, programming, performance and team spirit. It also gives what is called the "Chairman's Award," which goes to the best all-around team.

"We're not going to be there yet," Chidley acknowledged. "But this is the first year we can seriously enter into that competition."

The robotics team is holding a pancake breakfast on Sunday, Dec. 5, at the B.F. Hoxie Firehouse in Mystic. The buffet-style meal will cost $10 for adults and $5 for children, with all the proceeds going to the team.

The event, which runs from 8 to 11 a.m., will also feature a silent auction, basket raffle, children's crafts and face painting. Tickets are available at the door.

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