Published: January 13, 2010 11:48 pm 

ACADEMICS: Tonawanda HS places third at Tech Wars

By Joe Olenick
The Tonawanda News

In just their second year of competing, the Grand Island School District has reached the top of the Tech Wars mountain.

Grand Island is the 2010 Niagara County Community College Tech Wars champion, capturing the title at the 13th annual competition held Wednesday. Behind Grand Island’s 64 team points, Lockport City Schools finished in second place with 35 points, ending their three-year run as the top Tech Wars district. Tonawanda City Schools came in third place for a second straight year with 23 points.

More than 700 middle and high school students from 24 school districts from across Western New York packed NCCC. Tech Wars is an academically based technology competition that pits middle and high school students in multiple project-based events of skill, chance and ability. Students in local schools design and build robots, cars and other technology-based projects that they enter into a variety of competitions against other local schools and students.

Tonawanda not only took third overall, but the high school won the sumo robots category, one of the more popular events at Tech Wars. Joe Rank, Eric Krzeminski and Kyle McGregor employed a two-pronged strategy of keeping their front end low and allowing the opposition to make the first move. Krzeminski said the move helped their robot get under the opposing robot and in most cases, flip the robot off its wheels.

“We waited for them to come at us,” Rank said.

Teacher Gary Novits wasn’t just impressed with the design of the sumo robot, but was also with the trio’s driving strategy.

“It was a good design but I didn’t think about the driving,” he said. “It was like cat and mouse. It gave them an opening.”

Grand Island took home the grand prize, the Western New York Technology Education Association Tech Wars Cup.

Seniors Zach Hughes, Mike Sperrazza, Brett Dlugosz and Andrew Lalonde were among the large Grand Island team celebrating in the NCCC gym Wednesday. They finished second in structural bridges, in which the student-built bridge that held the most weight would win. But winning Tech Wars felt good, especially after tying Newfane last year for second place.

“We were better prepared this year,” Hughes said. “We really didn’t know what to expect last year.”

“We learned a lot,” Sperrazza said.

Grand Island swept the top three spots in structural bridges and hockey robots, where student-controlled robots tried to score as many goals as possible. Lockport had a couple of their own sweeps, too, taking the top three places in musical instruments and middle school sumo robots. The goal of “sumo bots” is to push the other team’s robot off a circular platform as many times as possible during a time period.

North Park Middle School students Lydia Phelps, Kasey Johnston and Michael Topolski built a wind chime that could be activated with a swipe of the hand. Three metal chimes hung from a wooden ledge, while a mechanical arm would ring each when activated by a motion detector.

“We brainstormed and tried to come up with something creative and different,” Johnston said.

Albion Middle School was competing for the first time this year. Even so, Albion dominated the middle school autonomous robot category taking first and third place. In that event, students had to create and program a robot to make a checkmate move in a game of chess.

“We were shocked — the kids were outstanding,” said Albion technology teacher Chris Keller.

Events for Tech Wars also included short track carbon dioxide dragster, basic stamp, mousetrap car, architectural design, drafting, T-shirt design and video production. Awards will be handed out to winners in each category, and points were given to the top three in each event.

Tech Wars began in 1997 with only a handful of participants, but now operates with hundreds of students and a team of dedicated volunteers, NCCC site coordinator Mark Voisinet said. The competition has grown extensively and even influenced similar competitions at Erie County Community College and Genesee County Community College. Voisinet said other counties have been asking about Tech Wars, including some from as far away as Massachusetts.

“We’re hoping this can spread across the country,” Voisinet said. “Here, students learn. They learn how to solve problems, which is the definition of an engineer.”