Local Youth Robotics Club Provides Real-World Help in Wake of COVID-19

The kids had worked so hard. Beginning last September, they built, programmed, updated, and constantly improved their robot in order to meet the challenges needed for competition in the World Championships.

But in March the world changed.

Competitions were cancelled and the Dragonators robotics club was no longer able to meet. All their hard work and plans had to be put aside due to the COVID-19 shutdowns.

The Dragonators’ sister team, Velocity, also faced the disappointment, including driving hours to a competition only to be turned away on-site due to the immediate shutdown.

“A lot of ‘kid hours’ went into the project,” said Howard Hiles, mentor and mechanical lead for the Velocity team.

The retired mechanical supervisor volunteers his time to help the team, and had driven the kids up to North Jersey for a competition.

“It was early on, and the kids were confused. They figured that the virus must be really bad if they were cancelling the competition, but then everything else shut down,” he added.

The Dragonators and Velocity are self-funded community robotics teams supported by South Jersey Robotics. Both fall under the umbrella of FIRST®, an international organization supporting STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education. With a total of over 77,000 teams in more than 110 countries, FIRST® is the world’s largest nonprofit solely serving youth robotics membership.

The Dragonators support the Gloucester County area and were born in 2018 when local kids advancing out of a younger league did not have a nearby team to join.

Clarksboro resident Kindra Liczbinski is the coach and project manager for the Dragonators. Liczbinski started the team when her son was one of the students who required a local group in his age division. Eli, now age 16, is still part of the team, as well as her daughter Karly, age 13.

Before COVID-19 hit, the team met and worked out of facilities at Rowan College of South Jersey in Sewell, but many of the 13 team members are from the Swedesboro area and attend local middle and high schools.

The Dragonators’ sister team, Velocity, is based in Bridgeton, and is solely a high-school-aged team.

Without robots to hone and competitions to prepare for, the two teams quickly realized that they could still use their STEM skills, but in a way that would serve the community in a time of need.

Shown here is a finished and packed box of the first headband design with thicker plastic bands and buttonhole elastic to keep the transparent mask in place. The team found this design too time-consuming and more expensive to produce. 

Because each team had access to a 3D printer, The Dragonators and Velocity decided to combine efforts to print, assemble, and distribute protective face shields for local front-line health care workers in the Delaware Valley/Tri-State Area.

Fourteen-year-old Alden Rowlyk, who will be a freshman at Kingsway High School in September, is one of the programmers for the Dragonators, and spoke of the decision.

This is the second version of the headband and shield. The improved headbands are thinner, take less time to print, and use tension to stay on the head.

“We were so close to going to the World Championship this year but our season was cut short due to COVID-19. During various life situations, I have been raised to be a helper. But, I wasn’t sure how I could help until Coach Kindra asked the team if they would consider using our 3D printers to make face-shields/masks for essential workers.”

With the generous funding of several local businesses and a number of private donations, the teams were able to purchase printer filament, elastic bands, and the materials required to make the clear visor. 

Under the supervision of team coaches, mentors, and parents, the teams began their work while wearing masks and following social distancing guidelines. After each headband was printed and sanded, it was attached to the transparent plastic face covering to create a usable face shield.

Kingsway middle school student Karly Liczbinski of team Dragonators, age 13, attaches a buttonhole elastic to the headband.

Finished masks were also disinfected and packaged by the teams prior to delivery. Some tasks were performed in assembly-line fashion to increase productivity and allow multiple team members to contribute to the workload.

A team member packs finished and packaged face shields for delivery to a nursing home.

Some of the donated funds were also used for cleaning supplies, hardware, and other materials required to produce the shields in sanitary conditions. Over 1,000 masks were created and distributed by the two teams.

Local recipients of the face shields included Inspira Hospital in Mullica Hill and Advocare Pediatrics in Woolwich Township.

Other recipients included Woodbury Mews Nursing Home, Gloucester County ARC, Cumberland County Nursing Home, Bancroft Neurohealth in Cherry Hill, Little Flower Manor in Darby, PA; Ancora Psychiatric Hospital, Crozer Hospital in Chester, PA; and Jefferson Hospital in Washington Township. The team also donated some shields to Johnson’s Farm in Medford and Lititz Veterinary Clinic in Lititz, PA.

“Knowing that these items are in short supply around the world, our goal was to give people an extra layer of protection during these unprecedented times,” Rowlyk continued. “Overall, we are happy to help out in any way we can. I think it is important to do things for others in times of need.”

Recently, Rowlyk’s great-grandmother Mary Smyth passed away. “Coach Kindra thought it would be a good idea if we donated face shields to my grandmother’s nursing home, Little Flower Manor.”

“Everyone has been so appreciative to receive the masks! I think they are impressed that a bunch of teenagers came through for them during a really crazy time in the world,” Rowlyk added.

Rowlyk’s aunt, Dee Smyth, explained how her mother’s passing was so difficult due to visiting restrictions during the pandemic, but how the mask donation helped bring some happiness to such a sad time.

“When we heard that [Alden’s] team was making face shields and donating them to Little Flower in Mom’s memory, it brought me such joy. I was so moved by this gesture.”

Smyth knew that her mother, a former nurse, would have been thrilled to know that these face shields would provide protection for the people who lovingly cared for her. 

The Dragonators Robotics team. Pictured left to right: Karly, age13, Kingsway Middle School; Tyson, age 14, Tower Hill School, Wilmington, DE; Colin, age 13, Kingsway Middle School; Ryan, age 17, Kingsway High School; Alden, age 14, Kingsway Middle School; Stephen, age 16, GCIT; Natalie, age 14, Kingsway Middle School; Eli, age 16, Kingsway High School; Josh, age 13, Clearview Middle School; Anthony, age 14, St. Margaret’s School; and Nikhil, age 13, Kingsway Middle School. Not shown: Luke, age 14, St. Margaret’s School; and AJ, 13, Kingsway Middle School.

The Dragonators and Velocity teams are looking forward to when they are able to meet again. Both groups are hoping that the robots they built for the cancelled season can be modified and reworked for future competitions, since so much went into the efforts.

Although the cancelled competitions were discouraging for the students, the ability to turn the situation around and help the community with their skills provided the teams with a unique and fulfilling opportunity.

Perhaps Velocity Coach Michelle Koger summed it up best.

“The thing I love about First Robotics is that it gives the students a chance to fail in a controlled environment,” she began.

“These students are the best and smartest in their schools, and our education system, while great, doesn’t give them enough opportunities to simply not win,” she continued.

CAD and 3D printing were used to print the headbands for the Dragonators.

“South Jersey Robotics kids work harder than any adult I know, and sometimes it just isn’t enough. Something breaks, and suddenly they have to react and fix it. Failing fast, failing often, and failing forward is a process we teach, and I haven’t found another program that does it as well as First Robotics,” she concluded.

When asked about all of the time and effort she puts into coaching and supporting the Dragonators, Coach Kindra Liczbinski speaks of the educational gap that the team fills, and how important that is.

“South Jersey Robotics gives me the nonprofit platform to coach a FIRST robotics team in an area where it is not available in the schools. [I’m] giving my kids the same learning experience, competition, values, and access to FIRST scholarships as other students have. We are bridging a gap and providing valuable life lessons.”

Dragonators team members Eli Liczbinski and Stephen Dodelin encourage area kids to get involved. “It’s an experience worth trying. It’s an ever-changing learning experience with building, CAD, and programming the robot.” 

Those interested in joining the Dragonators can visit the team online at https://www.sjrobotics.com/join-a-team/ftc/ . To donate to the Dragonators, visit their fundraising page at https://www.gofundme.com/f/dragonators-ppe-face-shield-campaign.

By Colleen Woods-Esposito

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