GENEVA — When the fledgling Geneva Panther Robotics team began preparation for its first competition at RIT on March 18, team members weren’t figuring on earning a trip to St. Louis for the world FIRST robotics competition April 25-29.

But they did.

Now they need to accomplish one more thing: raise $15,000.

That’s the money Panther Robotics will need to enter the competition and the expenses associated with the four-day stay in Missouri’s largest city.

Andrea FitzGerald, one of the team’s adult mentors and president of Sidco Filter Corp. in Manchester, is reaching out to the community for contributions — her company is one of the sponsors — and has started a page to raise the money.

FitzGerald said there’s no doubt in her mind: The team, which includes students from eighth to 12th grade, will raise the money and travel to St. Louis.

They earned it by winning the rookie award at the Finger Lakes competition at RIT. While the 12-member team finished seventh out of 49 teams there, it also produced the highest score of any first-year team, said FitzGerald, who has two boys who compete on the squad, which she noted is a diverse mix of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds and even gender (the team has one girl).

The acronym FIRST stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,” and the competition provides an opportunity for students and mentors to be involved in a team-based engineering project, where they learn about technology,

problem-solving, project management, teamwork, public speaking and much more. The district is placing significant efforts on encouraging the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines, and the robotics team is one of those efforts.

While the team had some mentors with technical expertise, FitzGerald was not one of them. “We’re learning with the team,” she said.

Other mentors include Geneva City School District teachers Jeremy Valentine and Renee Williams, Hobart and William Smith Colleges associate professor John Vaughn and RIT associate professor Beth Carle.

With a modest $5,000 in funds, thanks to the Wyckoff Family Foundation, the Argosy Foundation and Sidco Filter, Geneva Panther Robotics set out in January with six weeks to design and build a robot. They would be competing against established teams in Monroe County and the region with budgets of $35,000 to $40,000, FitzGerald said.

While the team’s $5,000 entry fee gave Geneva the hardware needed for the robot, the team had to do all the construction work.

That work, FitzGerald emphasized, must be done by the kids.

“This was not dad making it happen,” she said, explaining that the students turned to YouTube for instructional videos to help put their robot together.

Two students said being part of the Geneva robotics team has had a big impact on them.

“Through my participation in robotics, I’ve strengthened bonds with team members and I’ve learned to not take criticism to heart but to look at criticism for ways of improvement,” said Enitan McIntosh.

For James Williams, it’s helped solidify what studies he is looking to pursue in college.

“Working on the bot really helped me decide that engineering is the field I would enjoy being a part of,” he said.

Unlike most other FIRST robots, the Geneva team used a simple design with wood, based on the team’s skills and finances, and that proved to be an asset, said FitzGerald, explaining it was very reliable.

In the competition, teams were given tasks for robots to perform, FitzGerald said, including picking up gear to be placed in the “airship” as part of the “Steamworks” theme of the national FIRST competition. Another task was having the robot climb a rope and press a button to turn on a light.

In addition to their Rookie All-Star Award, the team also captured the Highest Rookie Seed Award after the conclusion of qualifying rounds and won the quarterfinals in an alliance with Trumansburg Robotics and ROC City Robotix of Rochester.

Those programs were similar to Geneva’s in that they didn’t have the funding of many of the established teams. The three teams also were more racially diverse, FitzGerald noted.

Working with other teams is part of FIRST’s philosophy of “gracious professionalism” in which teams are rewarded for helping other teams, said FitzGerald.

She noted that Spencerport’s robotics team has traveled to Geneva with its robot on a couple of occasions in an effort to help Panther Robotics develop their own program.

And while the Geneva team needs immediate support for the trip to the St. Louis competition, it also needs long-term partners to further develop the program, she said.

In the meantime, all eyes are on St. Louis. Their robot has been sent to the city as part of a “no-tinkering” competition rules.

Both McIntosh and Williams are proud of what the team accomplished in the first year.

“In St. Louis we hope to win, said McIntosh. “The bare minimum we will accomplish at St. Louis is more recognition.” Added Williams: “Well, getting a win at the next level would be amazing, but really, making it to St. Louis is already an amazing accomplishment for us.”

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