Fitch robotics team wins three competitions, heads to New England championship

Groton — The Aluminum Falcons, the robotics team from Robert E. Fitch High School, will advance to the New England championship of the FIRST Robotics Competition on April 6-8 after winning three competitions in a row.

The Falcons competed against 41 teams three weeks ago in Bridgewater, Mass., faced 40 teams two weeks ago in Bridgewater, N.J., and competed against 42 teams last weekend at Bryant University in Rhode Island.

“We didn’t win, we totally dominated” in Rhode Island, said Brian Chidley, faculty advisor for the Falcons and a physics teacher at Fitch. The team set the overall high score for New England with 500 points. The New England District in which Fitch competes includes about 200 teams, he said.

The FIRST Robotics Competition changes annually, and this year students had to design a robot that could shoot softball-sized whiffle balls into a 10-foot-high goal, retrieve 10-inch gears and place them on hooks, and climb a rope.

The Falcons team of 27 students works with about a dozen mentors, including volunteers from Electric Boat, Pfizer Inc. and parents employed by Groton Utilities and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

The Falcons will face 63 teams in the New England Championship on April 6-8 at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. The 30 best teams from New England will advance to the World Championship April 27-29 in St. Louis.

Everett Wilhelm, marketing mentor for the team and a scientist at Pfizer, said the Fitch team functions almost like a family.

“The team is in its 10th year in existence so there’s definitely maturity,” he said. “We’ve had our lead mentors now for eight, 10 years, so there’s continuity and we’ve just continued to build.” Two engineers from Electric Boat, Kevin Harrilal and Josh Miller, also invest long hours in the team, Wilhelm said.

The robotics team gives students experience akin to a professional internship, he said. Wilhelm's son, Cameron, 19, was on the Falcons team as a high school student. He’s now at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

“It's hands on. It's theory," Wilhelm said of robotics. "He was mostly involved with design and mechanical, those two subteams within the team. He’s studying to be a mechanical engineer right now. It basically decided his future, once he experienced the professional mentorship on the team.”

d.straszheim@theday.com

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