Robotics Workshop Takes Test Run on Main Street

January 22, 2018

Within the large storefront at 544 Main Street, hidden behind opaque curtains used more for insulation than privacy, you’ll find a starkly utilitarian workshop, with tall metal tables, industrial-looking equipment, and a bare concrete floor. On a recent Friday afternoon, it also held about 20 deeply focused high school students, bundled up in layers against the chill, oblivious to everything but their work – in many cases, the robot in front of them. 


The space, which formerly housed a hardware store, is the temporary home of FIRST NYC, a non-profit that, for the past 17 years, has run robotics programs and competitions across New York City. In March, the group will move to a permanent location on Cornell Tech’s campus. The NYC FIRST STEM Center is the first of several learning centers the group hopes to open in the future.


On Sunday, January 28, from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m., the center will host a free open house with activities and demonstrations for the community.


High school students spend at least three hours a week at FIRST NYC’s workshop on Main Street collaborating on robotics projects. 


Robotics for All


CEO Michael Zigman describes FIRST NYC as “the NBA of robotics.” With 500 robotics teams across the City and between 6,000 and 7,000 student participants, Zigman says they are one of the largest STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) education groups in the City. 


FIRST, which stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,” offers four robotics leagues, broken down into different age groups between kindergarten and twelfth grade. Island-based Girl Scout troop 3001, for example, currently competes in the organization’s FIRST Lego League, which challenges students in fourth through eighth grade to build and program robots using Lego bricks, as well as identifying and proposing a solution to a real problem in their community. 


Leasing the space on Roosevelt Island, says Zigman, will allow the group to expand its outreach even farther. “There’s a lot more to be done. These competitions are great, robotics is great, but we wanted to give our kids more.” Zigman has been professionally involved in STEM education for six years, but he says he’s always been interested in both education and STEM from an early age. Both his grandmother and mother were NYC public school teachers, and his sister is currently a teacher at PS 166 in Astoria. 


The new space, NYC FIRST STEM Center, will give students access to technology and equipment that is often out of reach – especially in lower income areas – as well as teachers experienced in using it. As examples, Zigman points to the workshop’s 18-by-24-inch laser cutter, which uses a high-powered laser to carve intricate designs from a variety of materials, and its three-dimensional printers, which lay down layers of substrate to create a physical object. 


“It’s like a playground in a very serious way,” he says. “There are all the machines and tools to really unleash one’s creativity. Once you know how to use the machines, the sky’s the limit. So that’s what we’re doing. Three-dimensional printers over there, the laser cutter is around the corner. We are getting something called a CNC router (a computer-controlled machine that can perform some of the same carpentry tasks as a panel saw, spindle moulder, and boring machine.) We’ve got a mitre saw – it looks scary but is actually quite safe. We have all sorts of things for making and building.”


The Students


Currently, FIRST NYC works with four local high schools, located in East Harlem, Long Island City, and Astoria. For many of the students this is their first experience with robotics. 


“The desire is more important than the background,” Zigman says. “They don’t need prerequisites. If you want to do this, and you have proven yourself as a decent student, that’s good enough for us.” He says the most desirable quality for students to have is the passion to be there. “We are in the opportunity business,” he says. “We want to give kids opportunity.” 


Once a week, each participating high school brings around 20 students during the school day for three hours. Zigman says they also open their doors to their students after school and on the weekends.


Of the group there that day, Zigman said, “It’s a remarkably diverse group. Young men and young women, racially as well. They’re a really special group, but each of the groups is special.” 


Although Zigman is based at the non-profit’s office in Soho, he has a rapport with the students and the teachers, and he welcomes their enthusiasm with a lot of his own. 


Tonya, a student from the Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria who has come in after school, approaches Zigman to show him a leather bumblebee pendant. “I made this,” she says with excitement. “I laser-cut it. You know, my nickname is Bee.” He asks her follow-up questions about technique, clearly as excited to hear how she did it as she was to tell him about it. 


Throughout the course, the students are guided by two lead teachers, Anne Goodfriend and Talia Stein. Zigman describes both teachers as passionate about working with the kids, deeply committed and deeply dedicated.


“We want them all to have a taste of everything,” says Stein of her work with the students. “We have them all learn the fundamentals and then we encourage them to obsess over what interests them. Whatever they are dealing with, they have a goal – a challenge with a deadline. We say, ‘This is what you need to achieve. What’s your plan? Who’s doing what? Go!’ Then we keep hovering around.”


Walking through the workspace, Stein speaks proudly of the different strengths each student brings. “He’s going to be a 3D designer for sure,” she says of one student, Jesus, who is using the 3D printer to make a sign for the front door. About another one, she says, “He’s an engineer.” 


Next to Jesus, three female students are working together to make a stencil, which they’ll use to design their t-shirts for an upcoming competition. At the laser cutter, Tonya is busy trying to cut out a platform for her robot. 


Joining the Island Community


In March, FIRST NYC will move to more permanent digs at the Tata Innovation Center on the Cornell Tech campus. Zigman says the space will be about the same size, and will have the same, or perhaps more, equipment. “Very little will change, we just won’t be here.” 


Zigman is looking forward to the benefits that will come from the new proximity to Cornell Tech students. “We hope to engage with a lot of students there as mentors, and to have PhD and Master’s students give back as volunteers. There has been a lot of interest on their side.” 


He is also eager about the flow of ideas. For example, Zigman says, “Just by being there with us around, we anticipate conversations around ‘Why don’t we try this?’ That’s one of the reasons we chose to open up shop there.”


Still, Zigman says, the move from Main Street will be bittersweet for him and the teachers. “I am going to miss this! It’s really great being on Main Street,” he says, “We don’t want to be cloistered over there with no access to the community.”


The CEO says he’s interested in working with the Island community more in the future. 


“We want to get to the point where we can run workshops for people here on the Island who aren’t affiliated with the schools,” he says. “We are trying to figure [out] what the best way to do that is. Is it a one-day experience? Is it a bunch of Saturdays for a month? What about workshops for adults?” 


Because of the small teaching staff, Zigman acknowledges that they are relatively limited in what they can offer at the moment. “We will do as much as we can within our own limits for the community. We love it here. It’s fantastic. It’s like any neighborhood that you get to know. We really want to reach out. Again, we are trying to figure it out right now.”


On Sunday, January 28, from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m., FIRST NYC will host an open house in the space with activities and demonstrations for the rest of the community. The event is free. 


He also says their month or so on Main Street has been inspiring. “We have only had the space for a little over a month here. Now that we have it and its up and running, and relatively well machined and well equipped, now we can start thinking more expansively. I couldn’t be happier.” 


“We want to have a network of 40 or 50 of these,” he says.


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