Building for success

Cherry Hill High School East robotics club plows ahead.

Ben Starkman, a senior and member of Cherry Hill High School East’s robotics club, poses next to robot 2616J at one of the “playing fields” in the club’s headquarters. Starkman and five others comprise the ‘Jersey Devils’ team which spent long hours constructing and learning how to maneuver their creation.

On a gray mid-winter day, tucked in one corner of Cherry Hill High School East, the robotics club goes about its business within multi-level headquarters. It’s near the end of the season, and the club — which at the start of the year boasted about 100 to 120 members — has been whittled down to around 80, according to advisor Joe Dilks.

In the stuffy and cramped loft which rises above the main floor, splayed across two “playing fields” in which their mechanical inventions roam, students feverishly work their robots, which are similar in appearance to fire engine ladders but are able to latch onto and hold cubic structures.

It’s here that the “Jersey Devils” were tending to their beast, dubbed 2616J. Senior Ben Starkman was joined by fellow senior Susrut Dube, junior Eric Gershon and sophomores Duwon Ham and Aryan Pradhan.

Starkman didn’t have an exact count for how long 2616J took to construct and learn to maneuver, but said it was “a lot of hours over a lot of days.”

According to its website, the Vex Robotics Competition Tower Takeover is played on a 12-by-12-foot square field. Two Alliances, one red and one blue, composed of two teams each, compete in matches split into two sections. The object of the game is to attain a higher score than the opposing Alliance by placing cubes in towers, or scoring cubes in goals. A complete description of the game, with visuals, can be found here: https://www.vexrobotics.com/vexedr/competition/vrc-current-game.

When the Sun checked in with Dilks last year, the robotics club was in search of more support — financially and spiritually — from the school district. Things have improved since then.

“About 75 percent of the money has always come from the students, and sometimes more than that. Over the last year we’ve gotten one corporate sponsor, Bradford White, and the school does give us a little bit of money,” Dilks explained.

“I’ve always said it’s not the amount of money that makes a successful program; it comes down to students’ desire, work effort and commitment.”

Operating on a budget significantly less than its competitors, that dedication has meant the club has managed to take home some hardware.

“We really are a world-class club,” Dilks noted. “We’ve been to the world championships every year of our existence. We’ve won the state championships six, seven, eight times over the last 10 years.”

“My role has been to give the students an opportunity to compete at the highest level and win at the highest level,” he added. “Over the years, that has caused me to change the program. We built a couple days a week at school, but then got to the point where the robots are so complex, way more than they used to be. And if the students aren’t building at home and on weekends, we would not be able to compete.”

Dilks said last March that the team’s annual budget is between $13,000 and $15,000 — a large increase from the club’s early days, but still well below that of other schools in the state against which East competes. The budget is about the same this year. What has increased is awareness of the need for more science-oriented curriculum.

“I do know there has been a recent change and that STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) is taking a priority,” Dilks said. “The course catalogue now reflects an extra course for robotics, starting in September. That was added recently.”

Five of the six members of the ‘Jersey Devils’ team from the robotics club at Cherry Hill High School East. From left, Aryan Pradhan, Ben Starkman, Duwon Ham, Susrut Dube and Eric Gershon. Not pictured, William Yang.

When the Sun visited on Feb. 11, the Devils and the rest of the club were preparing for several big events: a tournament to be held at the school, the state championships slated for early March and then the Vex robotics competition in Kentucky in April.

“VEX is the largest and fastest growing robotics competition platform in the world,” the advisor revealed. “There are 20,000 or more teams worldwide. Last year, there were 600 of the best high school teams in 40 countries.

“We sent three teams last year, and this year we’ll determine that at the state championships. The state championship determines all of the world spots, and for New Jersey I think this year there are 10 or 11 spots.”

The tourney at East on the 22nd is a replacement for the state championships, held at the massive complex on Kresson Road for the last several years around that date. Instead, this year, they will be contested at The College of New Jersey.

Dilks said he kept the date open to keep minds fresh in anticipation of bigger competitive stakes, but there was an ulterior motive for the state championship to be relocated.

“There was a push to move it to a neutral site,” he explained. “We are probably the dominant program in the state, with the exception of Millburn, which won the world championship last year. Most of the stronger programs are up in North Jersey, and needless to say to come all the way down here for the state championship (and lose) … I can understand that, it’s only fair.”