The East York Collegiate Institute robotics team gathered for a celebratory photo after winning the Quality Award at a FIRST Robotics competition at Ryerson University.

E.Y. robotics team puts medal to the metal

Local high school students explain the nuts and bolts of competing with robots

The East York Collegiate Institute “Cybernauts” walked into Ryerson  University’s Mattamy Athletic Centre ready to throw their robot, Phoenix, into battle.

They pitted her against the robots of 36 other robotics teams across Ontario in the year’s opening FIRST Robotics competition.

With six weeks to design, build and program her, March 16 was the day the team of six students finally got to show off their aluminum friend’s skills.

“We’re pretty confident in our robot’s abilities,” Grade 12 student Aliyyah Jackhan said. “Looking at some of the other robots competing … we find that we have a little bit more strengths than they do.”

East York Collegiate Institute robotics teams sets up their robot for competition at Ryerson University's Mattamy Athletic Centre.
The East York Cybernetics team prepares to compete in the arena at the Mattamy Athletic Centre. (Courtesy of East York Cybernetics)

This year’s competition tasked the Cybernauts with playing a Tetris-like game, where robots need to balance blocks on a seesaw, weighing down one end for more time than the other team. By day’s end, the East York team didn’t make it to the finals, but they did go home with the year’s Quality Award for the design and build of their robot.

They also went on to be quarterfinalists at the district competition at York University and won the Judges’ Award.

Phoenix is currently competing in the provincial championship at the Hershey Centre in Mississauga. The winner of that competition will move on to the world championship in Detroit.

It’s Jackhan’s first year on the robotics team. Her job was to program Phoenix’s movements with the help of two volunteer mentors from the University of Toronto’s computer science program. Jackhan said she was initially skeptical about joining.

“I’m the only girl on the team,” she said. “It’s like I have to spend all this time outside of class with all these boys and it kind of scared me.”

Jackhan wants to be a computer engineer. That’s partly how teacher Chris Perivolaris talked her into joining the team, she said.

What ultimately swayed her, though, was the opportunity to practise team-building, as well as the advantage this will give her  going into university.

“Because of this (experience), I am kind of like the ‘super coder,’” Jackhan said. “I learned a lot about different types of coding, and it wasn’t as structured as it is in class, so I was able to do and learn a lot more than I would’ve in just a regular class.”

FIRST began in 1992 as a way of celebrating engineers, scientists and inventors, as opposed to celebrities. The organization has a variety of programs for students from kindergarten to high school. Younger would-be tech whizzes have the LEGO League, which has them solve real-world issues like recycling and building programmable robots out of LEGO pieces to compete with other teams.

Teams prepare to begin competing at the FIRST Robotics Ontario district competition at Ryerson University's Mattamy Athletic Centre.
The FIRST Robotics Ontario district competition was held at Ryerson University’s Mattamy Athletic Centre. (Sergio Arangio/Toronto Observer)

An important thing about the robotics team, Jackhan said, is what it taught her about the world of engineering. It especially helped her start to figure out how to make her mark in a typically male-dominated field.

“It’s taught me how to deal with people who may put you down because you’re a girl or because you may not know as much at the time,” she said. “It’s definitely given me a thicker skin.”

Perivolaris has run East York Collegiate’s robotics team for nine years. He loves the hands-on aspect of the FIRST Robotics program, he said, something that more academic classes don’t have.

“The idea is that it takes them out of the classroom and puts them right inside a problem that they need to solve,” he said. “It’s not so much about the robot itself, it’s about the process. About learning what to do when confronted with a problem.”

The moment they finally got Phoenix working was the moment everyone’s faces lit up, Perivolaris said. They took her to Crescent School, a private school near Bridle Path, to finish building her and test her out. Once they started moving her around, he said, students walking by admired the robot as it zoomed around the school’s practice space.

It’s moments like that that inspire Perivolaris to keep the program going.

“It’s been a fabulous experience for these kids. That’s why I continue to do it,” he said. “I feel like I’m building Canada when I help these kids.”

The Cybernauts are quite small for a robotics team, with some schools like Governor Simcoe Secondary School in St. Catharines, Ont. boasting world-ranking teams upwards of 80 students. They had to work extra hard to make a robot that could compete with the larger teams.

They also had to be efficient with their materials, Perivolaris said, since they’re not as well funded as other teams.

“We have to take robots apart (after the competition) because we don’t have enough money and resources to pass up using parts.”

Annika Pint, FIRST Robotics administrator at the Toronto District School Board, said the TDSB is one of the only school boards to provide a large amount of funding for its robotics teams.

“We have 22 teams in this school board and two-thirds of their ($6,000) registration fees are paid for by the school board,” she said.

Unfortunately, that’s not enough to keep teams afloat, which is why they need to seek support from sponsors. That has been difficult for the Cybernauts, Perivolaris said.

The team does get some support from former team members and mentors, he said, but what it really needs is support from local businesses to help with buying materials and supplies.

“There are technical and manufacturing types that could (help),” he said. “It just means organizing and knocking on doors. I just don’t have the energy as one teacher to do that.”

Perivolaris wishes his school would help on that front. John Bratina, the principal of East York Collegiate, said he fully supports the robotics team and believes in its benefit to the students that participate. He said he wouldn’t respond to concerns that the school is not doing enough to make sure the team has enough financial support until he spoke to Perivolaris about it first.

For Jackhan, she appreciates how the Cybernauts helped her grow her technical skills and gave her a sense of what the real world of engineering is like. She hopes future generations take advantage of the program, at least for the strong bonds one creates by working closely with others.

“At the end of it, your team is like your family.”