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Robotics team in survival mode after losing Motorola grants

Robotics Main

Brianna Lawrence is heading to the West Coast in the fall. She’ll be leaving Patchogue-Medford High School for perhaps the greenest of pastures: Stanford University in Stanford, Calif., where she’ll be studying biomedical engineering.

Brianna says she owes this exciting opportunity to the knowledge and experience gained through four years with the Pat-Med robotics team.

“I didn’t really even like math or science before going into high school and a friend asked me to join the team,” she said. “To shut her up, I said, ‘Sure, I’ll come.'”

Brianna and the rest of the students that make up FIRST Robotics Team 329 — as well as their parents and advisers — now find themselves scrambling to replace much-needed funding for their tight-knit club after learning it would be losing $30,000 in annual awards from Motorola Solutions Inc.

The money had been funding 80 percent of the team’s $40,000 annual budget.

“We’re losing everything, because to get the money you need to have a Motorola engineer serve as a mentor to your team,” Brianna explained.

Motorola, a big supporter of FIRST Robotics teams across the U.S., recently left its Suffolk County location in Holtsville after selling to Zebra Technologies. And without the company being around locally anymore, there aren’t any potential employees who could partner with Team 329.

Last month the students, professional mentors, faculty advisers and booster club members hosted an event at the high school in Medford to appeal to Greater Patchogue Chamber of Commerce members for help in the form of sponsorships. The PMHS Robotics Booster Club has set up an online fundraiser for individual donations. There’s also an indoor vendor fair set for July 18 at the high school.

To rally support for the team, the chamber’s executive director, David Kennedy, spoke publicly of its accomplishments during a June 22 Patchogue Village Board meeting.

“They’re highly successful and one of the best on Long Island,” Kennedy told the board. “The robotics team is really something that helps Patchogue-Medford stand out among all the other school districts.”

Team 329 has qualified for the championship tournament in St. Louis, Mo., for nine consecutive years. The fear is that if the club’s budget is gutted, Team 329 won’t be able to enjoy as much success in competition.

“If we’re less successful, less people are interested,” the club’s faculty adviser, Danielle Oldis, later said in an interview. “That means less media attention, less awareness and less people helping to fund our team. The better we do, the more support we get. Otherwise, it’s a downward spiral.”

Oldis outlined the club’s benefits to the Chamber members, and with that, talked about how the 40- to 50-student team netted $4.5 million in college scholarships since 2012. That broke down to as much or more annually than all the district’s athletes received, combined, depending on the year, she said.

“Many of these scholarships are designed for students who only participate in this program,” she said. “And you have elite students from around the country and around the world who are competing for them. So the fact that the scholarships are being awarded to our students shows they’re getting out of the program what the program is designed for. They’re coming away with top skills in engineering and programming, skills they will utilize in the real world.”

When asked if the program is in immediate danger of folding, she said no.

“The program won’t disappear, but it definitely wouldn’t be running at the current level that it is,” Oldis said. “It’s one of those hidden secrets. We do a lot to get our name out there, but so much of the focus is on (high school) sports. But the reality is, how many of those kids are going to play in the NBA or the NFL?

“Many of our kids take these skills and end up being engineers, right here on Long Island,” she added.
For Brianna and the other outgoing seniors, they say they’re trying to keep the program healthy for younger students to take advantage of everything it has to offer, from skills and scholarships to just having fun with friends.
“It would be horrible for my younger brother not to have the same experience I did,” Brianna said.

mike@greaterpatchogue.com

Featured photo caption: Brianna Lawrence (left) and other Patchogue-Medford robotics team members at April’s FIRST Robotics Championship in St. Louis, Mos.

About the author: Michael White

Michael White is a Bellport resident, longtime newspaper reporter and editor, and the owner of greaterpatchogue.com. Email him your story ideas or tips: mike@greaterpatchogue.com