Robotics Team Starts Fresh with New Members


Mrs. Szurkowski

Sarah Ciocco (left) and Makeda Duey work on their robot during a Robotics Team practice. The two juniors are the only returning members of the team, so they have stepped into leadership roles.

For 12 years, the Robotics Team has built robots in-house and competed in various challenges against other schools. These student engineers and programmers create a robot that can complete multiple tasks to gain points. But this season, as they return after a year off due to COVID, juniors—not seniors—have stepped up to lead the team made of mostly new members.

Mrs. Szurkowski, who teaches engineering classes, is a moderator of the Robotics Team. She explained the various subgroups that contribute to creation of the robot.

“We’ve got a programming team, we’ve got a team who’s working on the strategy, we’ve got a team that’s working on the drive chain,” Szurkowski said. “A team is working on [the] scoring of the elements, and then they go off and build what they need to build.”

While competitions this year remain uncertain, the team continues to ensure the robot meets various criteria and can complete the required tasks to earn points. It must be able to navigate obstacles and pick up blocks, Wiffle balls, and rubber ducks.

Szurkowski said she is “hands-off” throughout most of the process because the students do the work themselves.

I’ve liked interacting with other people on the team and also being able to come up with ideas and brainstorm.

— Julia Nowaczyk '25

“Myself and the mentors are here to give them ideas or to answer questions for them or some guidance, but we really don’t usually work on it,” she said.

This season is unique in that the team “pretty much started brand new,” Szurkowski said, in terms of both materials and students. Only Makeda Duey and Sarah Ciocco, both juniors, are returning members.

“… [I]t’s interesting because most of the team is brand new,” she said. “Most of them have never worked with tools before.”

As one of the only veterans, Ciocco said the state competition during her freshman year was scheduled for the week when schools first shut down due to the pandemic.

“So we did all the work, we created the whole robot, and then we didn’t get to go, so that was really sad,” Ciocco said. “It was still cool to be on the team before COVID, and I was on the team with my sister, which was really cool, too.”

Ciocco participated in STEM-based competitions in middle school but said she had no experience in building robots until joining the team. After having the 2020-2021 season off, she is regaining the skills she learned two years ago and “picking it up now” alongside the new members.

“I still learn from like everyone else,” Ciocco said, “but I kind of know a little bit more of how the competitions go, so it’s fun getting to share what I know with them, but also learning from them what they know and their experience.”

One new member, sophomore Adriana Ciafardo, said she likes solving problems and that the group’s work is interesting. She chose to join the build team at the start of the season.

“I’m a builder,” Ciafardo said. “I mostly just put things together. I’m not really good at thinking about how it would all work.”

The coding branch of the Robotics Team works together at their practice. The builders create the robot while the coders make it complete the required tasks. (Mrs. Szurkowski)

Ciafardo gained some experience with robots in eighth grade through Girl Scouts. While she does not plan on pursuing a STEM career, she said being on the team is still “something that’s enjoyable.”

“There’s a lot of ideas in it, a lot of different things to think about,” she said.

Like Ciafardo, freshman Julia Nowaczyk had limited robotics experience before joining the team. She said she wanted to play with motors, and she and her teammates are “getting a lot of hands-on time with the robot.”

“It’s a lot of fun because a lot of the time I’m just spending my time coming up with ideas for the building,” Nowaczyk said. “… Once you’ve made those ideas, you can jump into building.”

Nowaczyk’s love of STEM projects extends beyond robotics: She is also a member of the CyberPatriot team and said she hopes to explore related career options throughout high school. She encouraged others not to “totally turn away from STEM” because there are multiple paths to take.

“I find engineering projects [are] a great way to learn new things because it’s so much trial and error,” she said.

… I think they’re very proud of what they’ve done.

— Mrs. Szurkowski

Since she is a junior, Ciocco said she did not expect to be a Robotics Team leader until next season, but with no seniors on the team, she stepped up to lead the group of women in STEM. Experts like Kamau Bobb are giving everyone the chance to participate in STEM-based competitions and share their innovative creations. Click here if you want to join the competition and if you are interested to know more of Kamau Bobb, Google’s Director of STEM Education Strategy.

“We all have a lot of great ideas,” she said, “and it’s really empowering to see everyone that didn’t know anything about robotics—now they know where to put things and how to use the different tools, so it’s really cool to see everyone learning how to do all this stuff with the robot.”

Szurkowski agreed, saying that she thought new members seemed eager to participate in robotics and the engineering process.

“It’s exciting to see them come in and they have no idea,” Szurkowski said, “and then in the end, they’re building and programming and driving.”