Alumni Spotlight – Robotics


New Trier Alumni Thank Robotics Teacher for Life Skills

A few weeks after we spoke with Chip Finck, New Trier Applied Arts Faculty, about the VEX Field grant his department received from the Foundation, two of his former students visited Winnetka to catch up with their robotics mentor. New Trier alumni Peter Figura ’17 and Josh Wrobel ’17, sophomores in mechanical engineering at U of I Urbana-Champaign, shared with the Foundation some highlights of their experiences having participated in the robotics club and team competitions.

NTEF: What was it like being on the robotics team that competed at the regional and state level VEX competitions?

Wrobel: I joined the club freshman year, and as I got older and spent more time with the team, it was very cool to see how our robots improved each year. They got more complex mechanically, and each year we did better in the competition than the previous year.

Figura: Our sophomore year, the robot was pretty much this little cube that had a single arm that was capable of only one movement. Then in our junior year, we were able to put so much more into the robot so that it was capable of three complex movements. Its task was to shoot out foam balls through a feeding mechanism and into a hoop. We had to work on stability a little bit, but we never tipped it over. It performed really well making nine out of ten shots. We made it to the top five before elimination. It was clear that we improved.

NTEF: Senior year. How did the complexity of the competition challenge evolve?

Wrobel: We had big goals senior year. One of the constraints we had was that our robot had to fit into an 18″x18″x18″ cube. We had so many different mechanisms we wanted to implement in our design, so we decided to make it a little transformer and have everything start from that cube and extrude out or flip out.

“I’ve had more educated conversations with people in college because of what I’ve learned from my experiences–both successes and failures–when I was a member of the New Trier robotics club.”
– Josh Wrobel ’17

Figura: The robot worked like a catapult. We made a gear where we cut out the right number of teeth to produce the correct rotation. One thing that we didn’t think about in designing the catapult was the ballistics to create a better follow-through. On the other hand, we gave it cool wheels that could drive forward and sideways to make parallel parking easier. For the competition, the goal was to fling as many foam cubes and stars as we could to the opponent’s side within the allotted time. We also got points for designing a program where the robot was performing on its own without being controlled.

NTEF: What did you learn from your experience in the robotics club and VEX competitions that you’re able to apply in college?

Wrobel: It was a really cool process. The sponsor didn’t just give us a blueprint for a specific design. Instead, they asked us to take our experience from previous years and make it better. They were very hands-off, but we could always go to them if we had a question. I learned a ton that turned out to be really helpful for what I’m doing now at U of I.

Figura: Building robots with the VEX team taught me to be a good worker. For this, we didn’t have a ton of time so in college I always start my projects a lot sooner. Josh and I are in the same class, Design for Manufacturing, where we’ve chosen a product, disassembled it and reverse engineered it. Now we’re figuring out ways to make it better and more cost effective to manufacture.

Applied Arts Faculty Chip Finck flanked by Alumni Josh Wrobel ’17 and Peter Figura ’17 who are both sophomores in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

“Robotics club was never just about the robots we built, but about the friendships we built along the way.”
– Peter Figura ’17

NTEF: What message would you like to convey to current New Trier students in robotics?

Wrobel: Robotics gave me a much better idea of what’s possible in real life. Sometimes it’s easy to say, ‘oh we can do this, and this, and it’s going to be this extravagant robot with all these components.’ Anything is possible, but you still have to know how to design it the right way so that it works. You can have a great mechanical design but then your motor might not be strong enough. I’ve had more educated conversations with people in college because of what I’ve learned from my experiences–both successes and failures–when I was a member of the New Trier robotics club. We really learned what it was like to be on a team. You would have to do your part and trust that your teammates will do theirs for the robot to work as it’s supposed to.

Figura: My experience as a member of the robotics club and a participant in the VEX competition has helped me to tie together all the subjects that I’m learning now at U of I. The memories I have of the great times we had in robotics club–the late nights, stressful evenings–I would not trade them for anything. Robotics club was never just about the robots we built, but about the friendships we built along the way. And from freshman to senior year, Mr. Finck was an incredibly impactful positive influence on my high school experience which has defined my future, my goals, and my ambitions.

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Videos courtesy of Josh Wrobel ’17.