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Riverhead expands tech program with engineering — and robots

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Not all students raced out of Riverhead High School when the bell rang last Tuesday, officially marking the Thanksgiving break.

In fact, technology teacher Luke Ferland’s Design & Drawing students were engaged in an intense competition involving textbooks, two index cards and 20 inches of masking tape at the end of the day.

Freshman H’Nadahri Joyner was the last to go in the competition. His fellow classmates surrounded the workshop table as he stacked textbooks above the taped index cards. The idea was to see just how many books their cards could support. Before another textbook could be placed, at least 10 seconds had to pass.

At one point, Mr. Ferland had to take over stacking the books by standing on the table.

“A little to the left,” H’Nadahri directed as he looked on.

“Like this?” Mr. Ferland asked as he gingerly placed the 29th book off-center onto the stack.

H’Nadahri’s project held 34 books — 9 shy of the day’s highest score. Students in Mr. Ferland’s class remained around the table as the bell rang while he recapped why he believed certain projects did well and how others could be improved.

“It’s a lot of fun — the kids are really into it,” Mr. Ferland said. “I could sit here with the coolest stuff in the world, but nothing would happen if it wasn’t for the students’ interest, drive and desire to do it.”

Elvio Estrada, a junior in Mr. Ferland’s Design & Drawing class, decorated his index card project with the school’s logo.

“Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to learn how to build,” he said. “Working on projects helps to clear my mind.”

This is Mr. Ferland’s third year working in the district and he’s already helped launch new programs during his tenure like Design & Drawing and the Robotics Club in order to meet student demand for more opportunities to learn about technology and engineering.

Students also learn how to use AutoCAD, a digital drafting program, and build with a 3-D printer in the course. In addition, there’s a new class called Residential Structures, which teaches students about the need for housing and construction techniques, as well as environmental sustainability requirements for LEED and Energy Star standards.

Mr. Ferland is looking to expand the Robotic Club and create an official course that would offer college credit through Farmingdale State College.

This is the Robotic Club’s second year and will be the first time students compete in a regional competition. The club has doubled in size, now totalling 25 students.

The theme for this year’s contest is creating a machine that picks up and tosses balls into a net, which Mr. Ferland described as a sort of baseball pitching machine.

The club’s popularity has grown because students not only learn how to build a robot, but they’re also taught how to code and create the commands that make the robot move.

“It’s so necessary for students to learn coding because most of them are going to use it throughout their lives,” Mr. Ferland said. “At first, they’ll drag and drop code for things they want to change on their computers and devices. Then they’ll eventually bridge into writing their own.”

Freshman Alae Mohammad said he joined the Robotics Club because he likes coding and wants to create website design programs.

For his team’s project, Alae is creating commands for the robot’s movement. For example, his coding work now makes the robot move forward by pushing a joystick.

With the robot’s remote in his hand, Alae compared the process to playing video games.

“I’ve coded other things, but never a robot,” he said. “It’s not that hard — you basically just write down the commands to tell the motor to go a certain way and to use a certain percentage of power. The wheels start moving and you control them to go left or right.”

As the students continue to prepare for the robotics competition, Mr. Ferland said they are documenting all of their progress in an engineering notebook in order to organize their research and outline how they were able to troubleshoot through problems they’ve encountered.

“This is the engineering design process in action — students are identifying a problem to solve,” he said. “The judges want to see what they’ve done with the robot and how far they’ve come with the design.

“It’s not always about who won and who lost,” Mr. Ferland continued. “It’s about what you’ve done along the way.”

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Top photo: Technology teacher Luke Ferland had to take over stacking books on to his students’ projects by standing on the table. (Credit: Jen Nuzzo photos)

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Elvio Estrada places a textbook onto his project, which is made of index cards and masking tape.
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Elvio added the school’s logo onto his project.

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H’Nadahri Joyner adds a textbook to the pile. His project held 34 books.
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Mr. Ferland and H’Nadahri at the end of last Tuesday’s class.
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Freshman Alae Mohammad with the robot’s controller. His coding work makes the robot move.
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Vanessa Giron, a junior, uses an engineering notebook to record the Robotics Club’s progress.
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Students working on the Robotics competition project.