Milford robotics team earns berth in world championships

MILFORD — What began in 2014 as an after-school robotics and coding club for a group of students at Orchard Hills Elementary has evolved into high school team battling for a world title.

The Milford MOJO FIRST robotics team hit the road to Houston, Texas, Wednesday for the world championship competition. Only 24 teams out of 180 in New England qualified for the tournament and, according to team parent coordinator Loriann Seluga, the locals are proud to be one of them.

“Coming into robotics our goal was to one day make it to worlds,” said P.J. Aubin, a senior at Foran High. Aubin has been on the team for three years and is a lead technician and responsible for all of the electrical work on the robot.

“At first it didn’t seem like the most realistic goal as a rookie team whose first season was cut short due to COVID, but we grew so much in a short amount of time, going far beyond our expectations,” Aubin said. “We always hoped that we would make it to this point, but it never felt real until now. To have this one last experience as a team means so much as many of the team members are seniors and this will be their last competition.”

The FIRST Robotics Competition is for high school students who design, build, and then program a robot to compete in a challenge that is released annually in early January.

The robot is about 125 pounds and is programmed to both perform autonomously (for 15 seconds) and then via remote control.

“We are really pleased with their performance this year,” said Seluga. “More importantly, the students have embraced all the ideals of FIRST - they’ve learned technical as well as interpersonal skills such as communication and teamwork and are truly fantastic individuals that also exemplify our team motto of ‘One Team.’”

There are 19 students on the team, with 11 traveling to Houston this week. Of the 11, nine are seniors at Foran, one is a junior at Foran, and one is a junior at Hopkins. Seluga said the team is open to any high school student from Milford.

Foran High senior David Gaetano said he joined the team to explore his passions and find a close-knit community at school.

“Through this program, I’ve been able to discover my love for engineering and create some of the closest relationships I’ve ever had,” said Gaetano, who will be majoring in mechanical engineering at college next fall.

Gaetano said the team works collaboratively to get the robot built for competition season.

“Myself, I enjoy working on the mechanical aspects of the robot building as it fits well with my love for physically building things,” Gaetano said. “We also have to work on other aspects of our team like fundraising. Recently, I’ve taken more initiative in reaching out to local companies and sponsors to ensure our team can continue being well-funded for years to come.

He said his favorite part of being on the team is the sense of community and camaraderie that the team has built in its time together.

“This organization has truly shown me that STEM doesn’t need to be cold, but rather an inviting field full of cooperation and people,” he said.

In three competitions this year, the team made the elimination round each time, and advancing to the final round once.

At every competition, Seluga said the team earned recognition from the judges - twice with the Team Spirit award and once with a Judges Award.

This year’s challenge was called Rapid React and required robots to pick up and shoot a 10-inch tennis ball into a target that is 8-feet high. In addition, the “end game” required robots to climb up a series of poles.

“The students designed, prototyped, built, and programmed a robot to accomplish these tasks and did so pretty successfully, but it was not without challenges,” Seluga said.

She said at the team’s first competition, students went in with a robot that could not climb to the high bar, but during the competition the pit crew worked tirelessly, and on the second day of competition the team was able to accomplish the task.

“In addition, on the second day of competition, screws in our drive wheels kept backing out (the team later traced the problem to a part that was imperfectly manufactured) and at one point we had to completely disassemble our drivetrain,” Seluga said. “Our pit crew seamlessly worked together as a seasoned crew even though this was the first time that they had ever experienced such a daunting task.”

The team was formed in 2020 and was only able to compete in one competition before the season was shut down due to the pandemic. The team did not have a season last year.

Foran High senior Juan Burgos is new to the team but has already formed strong bonds with his teammates.

“I have learned so much about engineering and STEM while being on the team due to the many specialized and intelligent members that we have,” Burgos said. “When the team puts all of their minds together, there really is no challenge we cannot overcome.”

Burgos said his role has been largely supportive of the primary roles since he needed to learn the ropes and gain his footing.

“There are a lot of skills to learn, and with the help of my teammates, I was able to do it pretty fast,” he said. “I helped tinker with the robot, create spare parts, and work on upgrades.”

The main challenge while creating the robot, he said, was figuring out what designs and functions the team wanted to prioritize.

“Since we did not have much time to create, we needed to decide what plans to stick with. This was slightly disappointing because we wanted to implement as many interesting plans as possible, but we just could not,” he added.

Aubin said it was necessary for him to understand all the different parts of the robot, which allowed him to work with and build relationships with each member.

“I know that someone on the team will always be there to help no matter what,” Aubin said. “Whether it’s issues with the robot, school, mental health, or just trying to figure out who you are, there’s always someone who is willing to talk.”

He said he was able to grow and become comfortable around his teammates.

“Before this team I viewed myself as nobody,” he said. “I thought that most of my worth came from good grades and being the perfect older sibling, but this team made me realize that there is so much more to who I am than that. We learn so much from each other and we have created a family and I love them as such. Our motto ‘One Team’ isn’t just a motto anymore, it’s a promise.”

As the team battles for a world title, Seluga is asking the community to assist with expenses for what is a costly trip.

The total cost is about $20,000, including the $5,000 registration fee and travel and lodging expenses for the team.

“We have received some donations and corporate sponsorship already, but we will need to raise at least another $5,000 so we will be able to compete next season,” she added.

Companies interested in sponsorship should visit https://www.milfordedfoundation.org/_files/ugd/842cbc_6519134eb055498f8cb91b48e81abc6f.pdf . To donate, visit www.gofundme.com/f/help-us-compete-at-frcworlds2022

brian.gioiele@hearstmediact.com