Army civilian mentors youth-based robotics program

By Ed Lopez, Picatinny Arsenal Public AffairsJune 5, 2023

Picatinny Arsenal mentors guide student robotic teams
The U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command (DEVCOM) Armaments Center at Picatinny Arsenal, N.J., has for years been deeply immersed in promoting careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM. This year, Picatinny sponsored 10 teams that competed in the 2023 FIRST world championship in Houston. Pictured above is the team Cougar Robotics from Montgomery High School. Courtesy photo. (Photo Credit: Courtesy photo ) VIEW ORIGINAL

PICATINNY ARSENAL, N.J. – Warren Venema, a mechanical engineer, recalls how 11 years ago he was a sophomore in high school, a member of a robotics team that was competing in the world championship.

This year, he was again at the championship, but this time as a U.S. Army civilian and mentor for one of the teams. The robotics competition is part of a program called FIRST, an acronym that stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition in Science and Technology,” founded in 1989 to inspire young people to get involved in science and technology.

Venema’s high school robotics experience eventually led to his current job at the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command (DEVCOM) Armaments Center, an organization with thousands of employees in technical fields. For years, the center has been deeply immersed in supporting careers in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.

“It’s because of this program, FIRST, that I was interested in pursuing a career in engineering, and it was my Picatinny mentor, Charlie Patel, who let me know about opportunities in the government,” recalled Venema, who mentors Cougar Robotics from Montgomery High School.

Venema’s team was among 10 Picatinny Arsenal-sponsored teams from New Jersey that competed on March 19-22 at the 2023 FIRST Championship event at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston.  Eight teams competed in the category of FIRST Robotics Competition for students in grades 9-12. Two teams competed in the category of FIRST Tech Challenge, for grades 7-12. STEM outreach activities are coordinated by the Picatinny STEM Office.

James Hoffman, former robotics coach for the team Aperture from Newton High School, noted the scale of the Houston event. “We were one of 619 FRC teams out of 3,300 worldwide,” Hoffman said. “This event brought approximately 40,000 people together from around the world.”

Steven C. Post, an Armaments Center mentor and a mechanical engineering technician, said it was the second trip to Houston for Aperture with students highly excited to make the trip.

“Walking through the pits and checking out the other teams’ robots, and noticing the diversity in designs, gave you a good perspective on how well the STEM program is preparing our future engineers.

“We did not make it past the semifinals but that didn’t rain on our parade,” Post continued. “We come from a small school with very limited financial resources, so to make it as far as we did in the world championship is a win in itself for us. The kids are very thankful for the long-term support they have received from the Picatinny Arsenal STEM Office over the years.”

Wayne Cokeley, the head coach for Ranger Robotics of North Brunswick Township High School, said the Houston trip presented a great opportunity for the team’s rejuvenation.

“Since COVID grounded us for nearly two years, our team has been in a rebuild mode trying to reconstruct the knowledge base lost when our seniors from those years left, and never had the opportunity to train their younger replacements," Cokeley said. "For this whole generation of students, this was the first opportunity to experience FIRST on a more global scene and the response of our kids was glorious. It was wonderful watching them swap stories and ideas with teams from across the continent as well as bond with a rookie team from Australia.”

Monique Dituri, the lead coach with the Mechanical Mustangs from Clifton High School, said the dedication of eight mentors and 24 students resulted in a spectacular competition season. “Our Picatinny mentor, Dominic (Estanislao), is invaluable to our team and we are so blessed for his dedication and continued support of the Clifton robotics program.”

For his part Estanislao, a mechanical engineer at the Armaments Center, underscored that the team’s achievements were a collective effort. “The real achievement is the graduating seniors who are going on to pursue STEM-related degrees,” he said. “So far two have declared that they are pursuing mechanical engineering at NJIT (New Jersey Institute of Technology) and aerospace engineering at Rutgers, with more still deciding their future after high school.”

Giuseppe L. DiBenedetto, a chemical engineer at the Armaments Center, said making it to the world championship was totally unexpected for his rookie team, Questionable Engineering from the Union City District.

“We got to talk with teams from all across the world, competing with people from West Africa, Brazil, Australia, Canada, and Mexico, to name a few places, as well as teams from across the United States,” DiBenedetto said. “There is nothing that can describe the energy of being in a room full of brilliant, innovative people who care about something just as much as you do. That vibrancy and excitement is tangible. Not only was this a chance to compete, but this was a chance to learn, collaborate, and connect with people. After all, FIRST is more than just robots, and our team is glad to be a part of it all.”

Livvy Kamen, lead coach for the MidKnight Inventors from West Windsor Plainsboro Regional School District, said the team achieved a number of records during the competition season. “The team did an incredible job, ending with a semifinals playoff finish in 5th place, and earning the Autonomous Award for excellence in programming and robot automation,” Kamen said.

Pamela Heinrich, the coach for the community affiliated team Cruise Control, said enthusiastic judges encouraged the students as they showed interest, not only in the robots and their preparations, but also in the students themselves, encouraging them to pursue STEM careers.

“Ending the exciting week as divisional finalists and winner of the second place robot design award was a thrilling experience for these home-schooled teens,” Heinrich said. “They are determined to be back next year. The team is very thankful for the support they have received from Picatinny STEM, without which this exciting week would have been impossible.”

At another community affiliated team, Steel Magnolias, student Abigail Prowse was a finalist for the Dean’s list, although she did not ultimately get selected as a winner. “But the experience gained from this event was priceless,” said Armaments Center mentor Cole T. Becker.

“Despite the outcome, she still had a great time learning and taking advantage of the free knowledge courses offered on site by FIRST,” Becker said. “Overall, it was a great opportunity for the team to grow and learn what FIRST is all about. Leaving Houston with our heads held high, we were ready to get geared up for next year’s competition.”

The scope of mentorships at Picatinny Arsenal extends far beyond those associated with the FIRST world championship. The Picatinny STEM office had 116 sponsored teams in the 2023 season. Some 55 Department of Defense mentors worked with teams in the categories of FIRST Robotics Competition, FIRST Tech Challenge and FIRST LEGO League. Some DoD mentors had more than one team, and in some cases teams had more than one mentor.

The teams sponsored by Picatinny Arsenal that attended the world championship were:

  • Team 11 - Nickname: MORT from Mont Olive High School
  • Team 25 - Nickname: Raider Robotix from North Brunswick Township High School
  • Team 1403 - Nickname: Cougar Robotics from Montgomery High School
  • Team 1676 - Nickname: The Pascack PI-oneers from Pascack Valley Regional High School District (won the Engineering Inspiration Award).
  • Team 1923 - Nickname: The MidKnight Inventors from West Windsor Plainsboro Regional School District (won the Autonomous Award Winners).
  • Team 3142 - Nickname: Aperture from Newton High School
  • Team 3314 - Nickname: Mechanical Mustangs from Clifton High School
  • Team 9015 - Nickname: Questionable Engineering from Union City District
  • FTC 9889 - Nickname: Cruise Control. community affiliated
  • FTC 17009 - Nickname: Steel Magnolias, community affiliated