Dewey does the robot: High school is gadgetry proving-ground

Dewey does the robot: High school is gadgetry proving-ground
Photo by Jason Speakman

He’s bot to trot.

John Dewey High School in Gravesend is home to a robotics program aimed at getting kids interested in engineering at a young age. Phil Dispenza teaches the five robotics classes and an after-school program. He sees the work as a calling.

“This is a life choice,” Dispenza said. “We need problem solvers. We have to get engineers coming out of Brooklyn high schools and going to the engineering schools we have here.”

Students start with an introductory class in ninth grade, where they build small robots from a kit. They take an advanced class the next year that shows them how to build larger robots as part of a team. Their creations then go head-to-head with ones from other schools. The biggest bot of all comes out of the after-school program, where all of the students collaborate on a single project to present in a more sophisticated contest.

“They work their way up, like going from JV to varsity,” Dispenza said.

The hands-on approach gets his students to apply some of the things they learn in more traditional classes, which helps the information sink in, he said.

“It gives it this nice spark,” Dispenza said. “They think, ‘I’m doing this for a reason.’ ”

Mohammed Hasan is a 10th-grader in the robotics program. He has been interested in tools and machines since he was kid, picking up on things from his father, a construction worker. But the classes at John Dewey have made him think about engineering in a different way, he said.

“The hardest part is finding the most efficient way to do things,” said Hasan. “It’s the design and concept that’s hard.”

Dispenza, who has been running the courses for seven years, said he is finally starting to see more interest from female students, and that they now make up 40 percent of his classes.

“We’re making a difference,” he said.

One of those students, Mariah Mensah, heard about the courses from her friends at school and decided to give it a try. So far so good, she said.

“I love it,” Mensah said. “It’s a lot different then sports. It’s not physical, it’s mental.”

She said the classes have her wanting to explore electrical engineering as a possible career.

Kids in the after-school program — there are about 40 — are also paired with a mentor, Michael Vilarelle. Vilarelle is an engineer who learned about robots in a similar program as a youngster at George Westinghouse High School Downtown.

“It’s a program that changed my life,” he said. “It lit a fire. Instead of just tinkering with things, it makes you dive right in and start problem-solving.”

A team from one of the John Dewey classes competed in the First Tech Challenge championship at New York University Polytechnic School of Engineering last weekend. Their robot had a problem with its lift, and they wound up finishing 37th out of 40 teams. Dispenza said his students took it well.

“Now that we don’t have the competition to worry about, we can work on the problem,” he said. “Nobody’s moping into class. They’re eager to fix the issue.”

Techno Files

Students from the Urban Assembly Unison School in Bedford-Stuyvesant started apprenticeships this week as part of a program run by the group Citizen Schools. The 175 middle schoolers are scheduled to work with volunteers from Amplify, Google, Momentum World, and Pratt Institute on science and technology projects. The students are supposed to meet with their mentors twice a week for the next 10 weeks, then give a presentation about what they have learned.

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The suds tycoons over at WashClub, Sunset Park’s app-enabled laundromat, are expanding the company’s reach by licensing its software to cleaners in other states. WashClub Penn-Jersey is now taking orders for clean clothes using the Brooklyn-born software, serving Mercer and Bucks counties. There is already a WashClub Long Island.

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The Federal Communications Commission voted last week to establish new rules to preserve net neutrality, banning internet service providers from selling big companies faster connections for their websites. Etsy and Kickstarter supported the measure.

Reach reporter Matthew Perlman at (718) 260–8310. E-mail him at mperlman@cnglocal.com. Follow him on Twitter @matthewjperlman.
Bots battle: Robots pick up balls and maneuver through obstacles during the contest.
Photo by Jason Speakman