Home Cherry Hill News Cherry Hill East Robotics looking to establish partnership with district

Cherry Hill East Robotics looking to establish partnership with district

Students, parents and club advisor Joe Dilks are asking the school district for more support to enhance the club’s future sustainability.

In one decade, Cherry Hill High School East Robotics has transformed from a small, two-student organization into one of the top robotics teams in the country.

This spring, Cherry Hill East will have a team appearing at the VEX Robotics World Championships for the 10th consecutive year. The team has become an annual host for the VEX Robotics New Jersey state championship, which consists of about 120 members and has several of its trophies displayed in a small trophy case in the lobby of the school.

Cherry Hill East robotics showcases its trophies for The Sun during a 2018 interview.

As the club prepares to celebrate the 10th anniversary of its founding in late 2009, parents, students and club advisor Joe Dilks are now reaching out to school officials to establish a stronger relationship with the district. A number of parents came to the last Cherry Hill Board of Education meeting on Feb. 26 asking the district to offer more support so the club can be more sustainable in the future.

Sustainability is the thing Dilks is most concerned with. He talks of how the robotics industry and competitions have grown tremendously over the past decade. With those changes, the club has expanded and the cost of competing at a high level has skyrocketed.

“We have to consider that this club is the future in STEM education,” Dilks said. “When we talk about education and curriculum and programs that help the youth, we have to consider this as something we want to sustain.”

The robotics club is the only way students can explore the field at Cherry Hill East. While the school provides a workshop for the club and some financial assistance, there are no courses in robotics and most of the club’s budget is privately fundraised.

Cherry Hill East Robotics has had success despite operating with a smaller budget than some other clubs. Dilks said the team’s annual budget currently comes in between $13,000 and $15,000. This is a large increase from a decade ago, as Dilks said the club only needed a couple thousand dollars to compete its first year.

By contrast, Dilks said he was told Ranney School, a private school in North Jersey, has a budget of about $35,000 for their robotics team as well as robotics courses. Dilks also talked to coaches from another school located in Hawaii during a recent trip to the world championships.

“They have robotics courses in eighth grade, ninth grade, 10th, 11th and 12th,” Dilks said. “Their robotics club has six advisors, three of which are engineers. Some of them were volunteers, but some of them were paid.”

Cherry Hill East Robotics Club faculty advisor Joe Dilks won the REC Foundation 2017 Teacher of the Year Award for his efforts with Cherry Hill East Robotics.

Dilks is the only club advisor for Cherry Hill East Robotics. Unlike other club advisors at the school, Dilks does not receive a stipend as the advisor, as the robotics club is not included in the collective bargaining agreement between the Cherry Hill Board of Education and Cherry Hill Education Association.

Cherry Hill East has provided some financial support to the club. The club receives about $2,000 from the school for parts each year. The school also pays the $1,000 per team entry fees when the club advances to the world championships. The rest of the money for the team’s budget comes from fundraising or from the students paying costs themselves. Some of the costs include registration fees for early season competitions, additional parts and travel and hotel accommodations for the world championships.

To help with fundraisers, parents of the robotics students created a booster club last year. Dilks said the club has been able to raise enough money through hosting the state championships, T-shirt sales and fundraisers such as a Thanksgiving pie sale.

Another source of fundraising has been John Fifis, parent of robotics club students Yihanni and Dimitrios Fifis and co-owner of Ponzio’s.

“A substantial portion of this fundraising comes from Mr. Fifis,” Dilks said. “When (his sons) leave that would be a serious decline in the amount of money we have available and would prevent us from buying the necessary parts we need.”

Yihanni and Dimitrios both said the robotics club has changed their lives. Dimitrios, a senior and Yihanni, a junior, both joined the club as freshmen and talked of how the club completely transformed their career aspirations.

“Before getting into engineering, we just wanted to be chefs, because my dad’s a chef,” Yihanni said. “Robotics changed me academically.”

Both brothers talked of how their father has embraced their newfound love of robotics. John built a workshop in a storage closet of the family’s basement to allow his sons and their teams to work on the robots at home.

“One night, we were down there until two in the morning,” Dimitrios said. “He had to be up at five the next morning. He was down there until two in the morning with us just cleaning up. He tries his best to come out to all of the competitions. He loves just to come out and watch.”

John was one of several parents who spoke at the Cherry Hill Board of Education meeting on Feb. 26. He was emotional as he spoke about the club and the impact it had on his sons.

“This gives them an avenue, this gives them an opportunity to get involved,” John said at the board meeting. “It’s not just about getting great SAT scores, taking honors classes, getting A’s and B’s.”

“There’s a lot more than just robotics to this,” John added. There’s so much that this offers.”

John and other parents also advocated for Dilks to receive a stipend. Dilks said he never considered asking for a stipend, but said it will likely be necessary for another advisor to take over.

Dilks said he doesn’t believe the district needs to take money from somewhere else in the budget to put toward robotics. He’s instead interested in partnering with the district to discover a new, more sustainable source of revenue.

“Maybe it’s time to create financing options,” Dilks said. “Reach out to private companies and make some connections so we’re sponsored by private companies.”

Dilks also envisions robotics going beyond just the club at Cherry Hill East. He noted the addition of robotics classes should be considered, saying the courses would help Cherry Hill East stay on the cutting edge of the field.

Yihanni and Dimitrios both believe robotics courses would be extremely beneficial for the students. With more than 100 students currently in the club, they also believe many students would want to take the classes.

“If there’s a class provided as an option to take maybe as an elective, it’ll open a lot more eyes to engineering,” Dimitrios said.

“It’s the future,” Dilks added. “Widener (University) just started a minor in robotics. There’s only two others on the East Coast. Robotics is so essential that there will be more schools that offer robotics on the high school level.”

Board of Education member Edward Wang shared his thoughts on the club at the board’s last meeting on Feb. 26. Wang said he attended the robotics state championships on Feb. 23 and was impressed by the club’s efforts. However, he also felt the district needed to help out the club a little bit more.

“I want to actually advocate that we should offer more support to that team, just like we do with the other sports,” Wang said. “To me, I think it’s a mind sport and would improve the STEM education in our school district.”

Yihanni believes robotics has the capability of becoming one of the most popular programs at Cherry Hill East. He believes with greater support, the club has the ability to impact many more students.

“Everyone has football,” he said. “Everyone has theater. If we make it more known, more people can join and more people can have the experience we have.”

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