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Robotics, cyber teams at JFK are building the future

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In Room 200 of John F. Kennedy High School on March 20, after the day’s closing bell, close to 30 students were still hard at work.

Huddled around a pair of state-of-the-art desktops were the six members of Kennedy’s CyberPatriot team, while at tables around the room, groups of four or five students fine-tuned and fiddled with skeletal, catapult-like robots, their terse instructions periodically broken up by laughter.

The U.S. Air Force sponsors the annual CyberPatriot competition as a way to nudge students toward science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, careers — particularly cybersecurity.

Science department Chairman Rob Soel said that the competition was all about “increasing the capacity among the nation’s youth to address the ever-increasing cyber security crisis.”

Students are given virtual images — representing computer operating systems — and are challenged to find vulnerabilities in the system, which could allow hackers to access and manipulate data. They have a time limit to fortify the system, while keeping the essentials running.

Jacob Weinstein, one of Soel’s students, is self-taught in cybersecurity, and brought the initiative to Soel, who was immediately on board. After that, Weinstein went about assembling a team.

“I chose some good friends and people, and assigned roles,” Weinstein said. “We did it based on what we knew about each other’s strengths.”

Making sure each team member was versed in a particular operating system was key, Weinstein said, and members were chosen with specializations in Windows, Linux, network simulations and Cisco security technology.

The team scored among the top 18 percent of national teams, placing fifth in the New York State Open Division, then in January were the only New York team to make it to the platinum tier in the semifinals.

This is also the first school year that Kennedy has had a robotics team, at the urging of students, including Mikaela Milch, who, along with one other student, “kept going into Soel’s office saying, ‘We need a robotics club,’” said science teacher Deanna Ocampo, who also serves as the club’s adviser.

The team did not assemble in time to participate in the larger robotics competitions, which are generally held between December and February, Ocampo said, but the district will host a Vex Robotics Competition at its STEAM Fair at Kennedy on April 11.

The Kennedy Alumni Association donated the team’s first set of robots, and much of the rest of the team’s arsenal was purchased through grants.

“This is our pilot team, but next year, the district has budgeted for a robotics team in each high school,” Ocampo said, adding that the team hopes to compete in the Vex Turning Point competition — and at least make it to state level. “We’re hoping by next year to have a lot of students primed for the team.”

The Board of Education was an easy sell on gearing up for district-wide robotics teams — including for eighth-graders next year — because “the student interest came first,” Ocampo said. “The district jumped on it.”

Building the robots draws on most elements of students’ STEAM education, said junior Jordan Berke as he tinkered with his group’s catapult-like robot.

“We’re drawing on basic life experience when we start to put together or draw something,” he said, adding that engineering stars are instrumental in the group, while those who are adept with computers handle coding the robot to perform its functions.

In another group, Arso Zafar and Brandon Lin said they had always enjoyed building Lego Technical sets — and still do. “We did the smart Legos,” Zafar said, laughing. Their teammate James Lasalle said he has long helped his mother when she had car trouble.

The whole team spends almost every day after school working on the robot. “We put blood, sweat and tears into this,” Zafar said.

Throughout the afternoon, the students puzzled through issues with the robots, and members of the CyberPatriot team busied themselves with security systems in a corner, often chiming in when a robotics team member became stumped with an element of code.

All of the students are clearly adept in computer science, engineering and physics classes, Soel said, adding, “What they’re doing here is all above and beyond.”