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Tonawanda students Joe Rank, 17, left, and Eric Kazeminski, 18, hold their winning machine after defeating Lewiston-Porter.

24 school districts compete in NCCC robotics and engineering fair

Island tops in Tech Wars


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<i>Photos by Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News</i><br /> Lewiston-Porter student Brandon Davis, 16, left, competes Wednesday in Tech Wars’ sumo robot battle against Tonawanda High School student Joe Rank, 17, at Niagara County Community College.

SANBORN — Robots descended on Niagara County Community College Wednesday to destroy everything in their paths.

But it wasn’t a scene out of a science fiction thriller — it was the annual Tech Wars competition for student engineers.

With 24 school districts competing in the robotics and engineering fair, members of the Grand Island team battled their way to the top, dethroning three-time champion Lockport as the overall tech-savviest district. Lockport placed second overall.

“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” said Evan Shaw, 16, who helped Grand Island win the title by taking first in a modeling contest. “We worked for four months on this, and it’s great to have it all come together.”

Individual competitions included building bridges to withstand hundreds of pounds of weight, creating playable musical instruments, racing carbon dioxide-powered cars and drafting scale models.

But the crowd favorite was the sumo robot battle. Students spent weeks creating battle-ready robots resembling 20-pound bulldozers out of metal, wood, plexiglass and other heavy-duty materials. They bashed each other until one was knocked out of the ring.

After a round of head-to-head matchups, the robot of Tonawanda High School duo Joe Rank, 17, and Eric Kazeminski, 18, took first place. The winning secret was creating a low, shovel-shaped front that managed to wedge beneath and immobilize the competition.

“Once we got under the other cars, they would be up in the air and we could just drive them right off the edge,” Eric said.

They nudged out second-place finishers Brandon Davis, Sam Buccella and Declan O’Leary of Lewiston-Porter High School. The Lew-Port builders, all 16, had similarly designed their robot to wedge under opponents, but they met their match after several rounds of competition.

“We got beat up a bit and our plow wasn’t flush anymore,” Brandon said. “Grand Island hit us hard and beat us up quite a bit. The plow was looking a little wavy by the end.”

Competition this year was the toughest yet. A record number — more than 700 high school and middle school students — participated in Tech Wars 2010. When the competition began 13 years ago, just six students competed, said NCCC Professor Mark Voisinet, who helped found Tech Wars.

Community colleges in Erie and Genesee counties have started hosting their own Tech Wars competitions in response to the success of the NCCC event. Voisinet said the college has received calls from as far away as Massachusetts from schools interested in hosting their own.

Gary Novits, an engineering teacher from Tonawanda, who helped supervise the sumo robot winners, said Tech Wars is a great lesson plan.

“It’s something that motivates the kids,” he said. “Since they know about this competition and it’s a little famous in the community, they want to come in first.”

Other school districts entered in the competition were Akron, Clarence, Buffalo Academy of Science, Cheektowaga, Frontier, Harkness Center of BOCES, Hamburg, Niagara Wheatfield, North Tonawanda, Stanley Falk School, Sweet Home, Warsaw and Wilson.