South Portland High School students, clockwise from left, Nick Duffy, Ben Gaudreau, Vinnie Martinez and Tyler Hanson, pose with their team’s robot in 2019 at the FIRST Robotics competition in Reading, Massachusetts. Contributed / Sean Manning

SOUTH PORTLAND — The coronavirus pandemic may be hampering efforts by teens statewide to participate in extracurricular activities, but the robotics team at South Portland High School isn’t letting the COVID-19 pandemic hold them back.

The team, made of up 11 high school students, participates in annual competitions organized by For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST), a global organization started by inventor Dean Kamen in 1989 to encourage interest in the fields of science and technology.

The competitions usually feature arena-style gatherings of teams that build robots to accomplish tasks set by the organizers, but after canceling last year’s events due to the pandemic, organizers are planning to hold this year’s competition online.

The red robot, marked with the South Portland High School Robotics team number 58, attempts to place yellow boxes on a scale at the 2019 FIRST competition. Contributed / Sean Manning

“They’ve changed the focus and the challenge this year to be as virtual as possible,” team coach Sean Manning said.

This year, the students will write essays describing their robots and their functions. They will use the same robots they were planning to use in the 2020 competition, and make videos to submit to the judges on March 4 in lieu of competing in person.

On Jan. 13, they received help in the form of a $1,000 donation from the Robotic Institute of Maine, which Manning said will help pay for the team’s registration fees.

Right now, the students still meet regularly about three times a week, but they are doing it via Zoom instead of in person.

“It’s a very weird experience,” team member Olivia Wallace said. “Everyone’s in their little square on-screen.”

Fellow member Vinnie Martinez said the team has been adapting to the virtual collaboration. They each work on individual kits at home and exchange computer code via GitHub, a popular online technology-related filesharing site.

“It’s actually quite smooth, considering,” Martinez said.

Martinez said it was disappointing when the competition was canceled in March. He has participated in previous competitions, and said he will miss the excitement.

“I’m definitely gonna miss past years, the stadium, the crowd cheering,” he said.

Wallace also said she would miss the adrenaline rush that comes from competing in front of a crowd, but she said she still remembers the overall mission behind FIRST: To learn how to use technology to solve problems.

“You’re essentially making the world a better place,” she said. “That’s what the program’s all about.”

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