NYU Tandon grad students mentor a new generation of aspiring roboticists

Poly Prep’s FIRST ® Tech Challenge team gets a Tandon touch

two students looking at a piece of robot

Tandon master’s candidates work with students from Poly Prep, a Brooklyn independent school, to assist them with a robotics competition

When Gordon Oboh, an NYU Tandon master’s student studying mechatronics and robotics, was growing up in the West African nation of Nigeria, he found few mentors to nurture his love of STEM. So when he saw a notice that Poly Prep, a highly regarded independent school based right in Brooklyn, was seeking help with its robotics team, he saw an opportunity to give younger students the guidance and encouragement he had not gotten. 

Oboh was one of a group of Tandon master’s candidates who travel to Poly Prep each week as the team takes part in the FIRST ® Tech Challenge, a competition requiring students to think like engineers in order to design, build, and code robots that then go head-to-head with those from other schools. 

Master’s student Ajey Jagannathan, a seasoned mentor thanks to his volunteer work with an organization in India, explained that the Tech Challenge involves sophisticated technologies like computer vision and autonomy. “I’m amazed at how much they know at their age,” he said. “They’re a very impressive group! I did not know half of this when I was in middle and high school.” 

That impressive knowledge is thanks, in part, to the efforts of computer science teacher Kristin Guynn — who advises the team and who networked with Nicole Johnson, one of Tandon’s Chief Inclusivity Officers and the Assistant Dean for Opportunity Initiatives and Programs, in order to forge the Poly Prep/Tandon partnership — and her co-coach, Daniel Costello, the school’s Technical Support Specialist. “I’ve done a lot of recruiting since the team had its rookie season in 2021, with a particular emphasis on getting female students and members of other groups underrepresented in STEM interested,” Guynn says. “As a result, we’ve doubled in size, so having the graduate students here to brainstorm and answer everyone’s questions has been invaluable, and they’ve contributed greatly to our growing record of wins.”

students working with robotsIn addition to helping solve practical problems (what motor will ensure that the robot is capable of the speed needed to complete the tasks involved in the competition; how can the robot be made more agile), the Tandon students were fonts of advice on team management, communication skills, and collaboration. “The NYU students have much more experience than us, so they are very helpful when we are unsure of whether something will work, or need advice on how to do something,” said one Poly team member. “They also help us troubleshoot when there is a problem, and a few of them have talked to us about their coding and robotics experience. For example, one of them worked on making ground vehicles for the Indian army.  Another has a passion for autonomous vehicles.”

Master’s student Govind Rajagopalan points out that the initiative is a win-win for both those from Poly and those from Tandon. “When you teach, you learn at the same time,” he says. “I’ve discovered that I really enjoy being in front of a classroom; as an international student, I’ve found it a warm, intellectually welcoming environment.”