Refugee robotics team hits ground running

March 2018     No Comments

The Midtown Utica Community Center (MUCC) Robotics Team.

A first-year robotics team made up of Utica-area refugees and led by SUNY Poly students overcame numerous challenges to place in the top 15 at a recent Robotics Competition Qualifier.

Originally from Nigeria, Oghenekovie Evi-Parker, or Kovie as she’s known to friends, is a SUNY Poly senior majoring in mechanical engineering who started a robotics team at the Midtown Utica Community Center (MUCC) with Moe Zae, a junior majoring in computer science at SUNY Poly, as a way to introduce young refugees to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) concepts and grow their interests as scientists.

FTC teams are challenged to work together designing, building, programming, and operating robots to compete in a head-to-head challenge. Guided by coaches and mentors, the students develop STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) skills and practice engineering principles while realizing the value of hard work, innovation, and sharing ideas. Teams use kits to create robots that can achieve goals set forth in new, annual competitions.

Creating a FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) team came with numerous challenges, from recruitment to language barriers, as well as the challenge of finding sufficient funding for the kits and materials needed to create the robots. With the help of the Northeast Education and Technology Education Center (NEATEC), a grant through the National Science Foundation, the necessary materials needed to construct their robot were procured so that the team could take part in the competition qualifier this past fall. The competition process also included a requirement for each team to meet with judges and make a presentation of their journey, engaging participants while building their public speaking abilities.

“Young people thrive through hands-on, experiential learning,” said Dr. William Durgin, Provost for SUNY Poly. “No child should have to be denied the chance to discover what truly interests them, and we are thrilled that SUNY Poly and the Northeast Education and Technology Education Center have been able to play a role in making this possible for these young minds. Kovie and Moe are taking their knowledge, creativity, and compassion and putting it to work helping and guiding others. There truly is no better illustration of what a SUNY Poly student is than that.”

Despite many of the kids on the MUCC team not being born in the United States – and with some of them unfamiliar with the technical language used in the presentation paper the group was jointly writing – Kovie and Moe worked with each team member to practice and work their way through these challenges until they were comfortable speaking in front of the judges.

“What a great lesson that is,” says Kathleen Alcott, Associate Director of NEATEC. “And it’s all part of the design. FIRST founder and inventor Dean Kamen doesn’t want to create a group of scientists that can’t communicate or share their ideas. Part of this is teaching them how to be great communicators.”

Together, Kovie and Moe led the team of 11 to 17-year-old refugees to 13th place among the 23 robotics teams competing at the FTC Robotics Competition Qualifier at Sauquoit Valley High School. And impressively, the team also took home the Judges Award, given at the discretion of the judges to a team they have encountered whose unique efforts, performance, or dynamics merit recognition, even though the team does not fit into any existing award categories.

“This team’s award is for exceptional teamwork,” said the competition judges. “They crossed international borders and language barriers. They reached out in their community to share their newfound love of STEM.”

“It was just amazing to see that anybody at any point in life can do what they want to do. As an engineer, the material was pretty different from what I was familiar with. But although it was technical, I knew it wouldn’t be beyond me…or them,” Kovie says. “The more time we spend, the more familiar the subject becomes. Everyone has the ability to succeed if they have people believing in them. I had one of the kids on the team come to me and say ‘thank you for believing in us.’ Having her tell me that, it changed my entire perspective. The idea that I could give them hope and the opportunity to grow is amazing.”