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Robotics builds problem-solving skills and forges friendships

Teams compete at the FIRST Robotics Competition tournament in Albany on Saturday, January 14th, 2023.
Lucas Willard
Teams compete at the FIRST Robotics Competition tournament in Albany on Saturday, January 14th, 2023.

Young people have been hearing for years about the link between emerging technology and their 21st century future. So it’s no surprise that robotics is an increasingly popular sport for middle and high schoolers.


The gymnasium at the Albany Academies in New York’s capital city is filled with enthusiastic students and supporters for a qualifier competition for the FIRST Tech Challenge robotics competition.

Today in Albany 16 teams are competing.

John McNally, an engineering teacher at the Albany Academies, is the qualifying tournament’s director.

“I would say it’s the varsity sport of the mind. FIRST Robotics is a place where teams design and build robots and program them and they work collaboratively with their teammates in innovative and creative problem-solving environments,” said McNally.

The name of the game today is POWERPLAY presented by Raytheon Technologies.

With fans packing the bleachers and balcony, robots using mechanical telescoping arms stack colored cups onto poles of varying height on the gym floor.

The fans cheer as the timer counts down and the robots scurry around the 12 ft. x 12 ft. field.

In the last round of the day, an alliance competition involving teams of two, Saratoga County 4H’s RoBovines and Augustine Classical Academy’s Hippobotamus captured the finals.

Junior Henry LaBarge is a member of the victorious RoBovines team.

“We’ve all very excited, it was very drawn-out. We went to the very last match we possibly could have, and at first it looked like we were losing and at the very end, it looked like we won. So it was probably the most exciting it probably could have,” said LaBarge.

The students competing here must work as a unit in designing, building, and competing with their robot.

LaBarge says the sport also helps students make new friends, and speaking for himself, come out of their shell.

“It creates kids who start off maybe being shy or not really wanting to get into everything, but once you’re into it, once you’re in it for a few years, you’re up there, you’re good at leading a team and all that kind of stuff,” said LaBarge. “Currently I’m running a couple of different younger programs. When I started off I barely spoke a sentence every single meeting and I think that’s the best part.”

In addition to winning the competition rounds, teams are also presented other judged awards – including the Inspire Award. Winners are chosen by judges as the teams that exemplify the sport — including sharing their experience, know-how, and enthusiasm with other teams.

The RoBovines captured first place – an honor that qualifies them for the regional competition in March at Mohawk Valley Community College.

Charles Xue, a 10th-grader at the Albany Academies, also competes in robotics but is only volunteering on this day. Like LaBarge, he especially loves the social aspects of the sport.

“It’s all the new people you meet. It’s all the teams that you see. I really love the culture of these robotics competitions, because a lot the teams will just go around and intermingle. We’ll share information on our own robots with other teams. We’ll help out, we’ll get helped out,” said Xue.

Tournament director McNally says it’s an honor being part of a sport that provides opportunities to students.

“I believe there were friendships made, there were problems solved, there was conflict, there was perseverance all going in this gymnasium today. So that’s what I’m here for. We do it for the kids,” said McNally.

More than 3,000 FIRST Robotics Competition teams represent 26 countries and regions in a sport that dates to 1992.

Lucas Willard is a news reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011. He produces and hosts The Best of Our Knowledge and WAMC Listening Party.