ARRRGH team members (front row) Ben Pollara, Cameron Chin, Angelo Guarino, Cormac Wilenius, Max Pollara, Sophia Chin and Elizabeth Downie with team mentors (back row) Ray Chin, Scot Pannepacker and Nick Pollara.

On May 21, the Hopewell 4-H Robotics Club, ARRRGH (Awesome Remarkable Rocket Robotics Group of Hopewell) took first and second place in the middle school division of the 2017 Oasis (Organizing Action for Sustainability in School) Solar Jam, held at Princeton High School.

They then moved on to the Inter-County competition on May 22nd at Ridgedale High School, where they came in the top 20 in speed out of 70 teams. The levels of competition are a part of Junior Solar Sprints, a STEM competition that engages students to design, build and race solar-powered model cars. STEM stands for (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

Hopewell’s chapter for 4-H, an organization that focuses on providing young people with valuable experiences, already had a robotics club before ARRRGH was created, called Infinity Robotics. However, this group consisted only of middle school students, so parents in the community sought to make a change.

Melina Guarino, a Hopewell parent, teamed up with engineers and other parents from around her community to create ARRRGH for their children who now range from 3rd-7th grade. The group was formed around January of 2016, and has been active since.

The current members are Ben Pollara (11), Cameron Chin (11), Angelo Guarino (10), Cormac Wilenius, Max Pollara (9), Sophia Chin (13) and Elizabeth Downie. Team mentors are Ray Chin, Scot Pannepacker, Nick Pollara, Matt Guarino and Bruce Downie.

The group began as a result of the parents’ motivation to teach their students about robotics, teamwork and community. “It was something that we try to do with the kids to help participate in their education, so it was something we thought was helpful,” mentor and volunteer engineer Ray Chin said in a recent interview.

Many of the students joined the group due to their passions for the STEM fields. “I like science and robotics because I like to build with my hands, and also I think robotics is just fun because you can build stuff and play with it,” student Angelo Guarino added.

The group name itself showcases the collaborative nature of the students. “The reason why the have so many initials is because each kid in the original group (Downie joined afterward) helped with one of the letters, and it happened to turn into the word ARRRGH,” parent Judy Chin said.

The members and parents of ARRRGH looked to try out various competitions regarding robotics, and first started with Lego Mindstorm challenges as well as various robot battles.

They then found Solar Jam in 2016 through “our neighbours, Drew and Carey Lloyd, who were running the competition. They told us about it, so we started brainstorming and building,” mentor and volunteer engineer Nick Pollara said.

Since the seven students are in different schools (Hopewell Elementary School, Timberlane Middle School, and homeschool), and “because everyone has a busy schedule, the fathers dedicate their Saturday mornings every week to get together and discuss,” Judy Chin said.

The work for the Solar Jam competitions begins in March, with “plans and brainstorming, like what materials should be used, and where the sun was going to be in the sky, because that determines the angle of the solar panels. In April and the beginning of May, the students met weekly to build,” parent Melina Guarino said.

Last year, their first year competing in the Solar Jam, ARRRGH only entered two machines, both in the elementary school level. “We made a four-wheeled car and a three-wheeled car. They both got in the top two for the elementary division,” Sophia Chin said.

In fact, ARRRGH’s elementary division robots even beat the middle school level champions, but due to JSS rules, only the middle school robots could progress to the Inter-County finals.
This year, due to students being eligible for the elementary and middle school level, as well as the increased interest of the students, ARRRGH entered three cars in the elementary school division and three in the middle school division.

‘Overall, they’re a great group of kids… and we look forward to taking states next year.’

The day of the competition itself is quite interesting, as described by Guarino. For the local level, JSS uses the tennis courts at Princeton High School, marking out the start and finish line, and installing the guidewire for the robots. All the teams check in, and there’s different courts for the elementary and the middle school levels. Then they do multiple three-car heats in a round-robin format. JSS randomly assign heats and cars can go twice before they are eliminated, Guarino said.

Before the race starts, teams have to put a piece of cardboard on the solar panel so that the car doesn’t charge beforehand. There are referee judges at the end to determine first and second place winners. First and second place of middle school division are called winners, and then go to regionals. Angelo’s robot actually won first, and Sophia’s won second, so ARRRGH had both cars go to regionals.

For the ARRRGH robots to be successful, the group first had to overcome many obstacles. During the brainstorming period, mentors had to guide the students, who often initially had “grandiose ideas of what would be the ideal car, which sometimes violated the laws of physics or were impossible to do,” Pollara said.

To finalize their plans, the students had to discuss and listen to each other’s ideas. “Some people wanted to have different designs than others, so we had to make multiple cars that were different. We had to find out different plans for everybody’s cars,” Angelo Guarino said.

While building the robots, group students and mentors had to find cost-effective ways to obtain parts for their robots. The first year, they were reimbursed by Oasis, the governing body of the Solar Jam. For this year, they took last year’s cars and recycled some of the pieces. Other parts were bought from stores or taken from others toys and devices, Pollara said.

In fact, the group faced challenges on the day of the competition itself. They didn’t have enough solar panels for the cars they built, so they had to keep switching solar panels, Melina Guarino said.

The group was fortunate to come up with a plan using legos and velcro. They made the solar panels removable and replaceable pieces. During the heats, they would have to switch. “It got really complicated when Sophia and Angelo were in the same heat, because then we had to borrow from the elementary division. However, it worked because they planned it out really well,” Guarino said.

Though the group did not qualify for the JSS national competition, held from June 21 to June 25, 2017 at the Rosen Shingle Creek in Orlando, Florida, they gained essential knowledge in robotics and in teamwork, and matured as a result.

Angelo Guarino mentioned that due to his participation in JSS, he has learned how robotics works, and is now inclined to continue participating in robotics-related activities.

The mentors, having worked closely with the students, noticed that “from last year to this year, you can definitely see that their attention span has become a lot longer, and they do a lot more building on their own. They were able to cut the cars out of balsa wood, glue them together, and line up the axles. They were much more adept at that this year than they were previously,” Pollara said.

Judy Chin said the students learned a lot from one another and came to understand what collaboration means. “What we’ve seen is that that teamwork was natural to them, but they really saw that that was a key to their success, despite the fact that they’re from different grade levels, skill levels, schools,” she said.

Melina Guarino said that the kids work together to come up with designs and solve problems. “They’re really a nice group of smart kids with a lot of ideas. But because they all started out interested with science and robotics, it’s really easy to keep them focused,” Melina Guarino said.

While the 2017 JSS competition is completed, ARRRGH is already looking forward to next year’s competition, and also adding to their roster of activities. “We’re always on the lookout for more things to do. For example, we’re actually going to be picking apart some bicycles and refurbishing them, and giving them to the Trenton bike exchange. While that has nothing to do with robots, it has to do with building and fixing stuff,” Pollara said.

“Overall, they’re a great group of kids, and it’s a lot of fun, and we look forward to taking states next year,” he said.

More information about JSS is online at transoptions.org/junior-solar-sprints.