Robotics team short on funds

After six weeks of construction in Yale’s machine shop and practice in a high school gym, the Great Glass Elevator — a robot constructed from $8,000 worth of starter kit materials, plastic, metal bars and wheels — has finally come to life. It whizzes, turns, and even collects and dumps balls.

The contraption is the Career High School robotics team’s entry in Connecticut’s annual robotics competition, which is being held March 26 to 28. It was shipped out for the team’s regional competition Feb. 17. For the third year running, the team, called Elm City Robosquad, has their sights set on participating in the national FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics competition held annually in Atlanta, Ga.

But budget constraints might get in the way. The team needs to raise $1,500 to $2,000 to make it to the Peach State, and the current economic climate is making that prospect seem increasingly bleak.

An after-school program founded by retired United Illuminating engineers John Buffa and Jim Crowe in 2000 to encourage students to explore science and technology, the squad has risen to national prominence since its inception. Two years ago, the team placed among the top 20 of the 85 participating schools in its division at FIRST. It has won seven regional and national awards.

“Things have drastically changed since I was a sophomore,” Career High School senior Maya McReynold, co-captain of the squad, said. “We have gone from a small team to a better developed team. Every year, we go to regional and we always come home with an award.”

Still, recent cuts to its budget have made the group uncertain about its finances. This year, the Connecticut-based electric company United Illuminating Corporation, the squad’s primary sponsor, decided to withdraw their sponsorship of the team when the Department of Public Utilities Control denied the company’s request for a rate increase to its consumers.

The economic downturn, UI spokesperson Albert Carbone said, has pushed the company to cut the amount of money they spend on nonprofit donations and community contributions.

“It’s a tough decision that we had to make,” Carbone said. “These are tough economic times, and there is never a guarantee about funding. We have to assess and adjust the grants we give based on changing situations.”

Past supporters Wal-Mart, Sikorksy Aircraft Corp. and the city of New Haven’s Economic Development Corporation, have also reduced their monetary support.

“We were able to get some funding from the school district this year as we have in past years,” Denise Smoker, an adult volunteer mentor for the squad, said. “We are concerned that it might not be available next year.”

The economy has also had a negative effect on the Robosquad’s annual expenses and budget. In years that they do not compete, the team’s budget is set near $6,000. The team’s desire to travel to Atlanta this year, however, doubles its expenses: $5,000 for registration, $3,000 for lodging and nearly $5,000 for travel.

Nonetheless, despite their financial troubles, the robotics team has continued to press forward.

“At first it was pretty hard to figure out a way to raise money after we found out that UI could no longer sponsor us,” said McReynolds. “But we pulled together and found a way to work around it.”

The robotics team has actively participated in fundraising events throughout the greater New Haven area. Asking for donations outside local grocery stores, in-school raffles and family fun nights have allowed the team to raise nearly $4,000. Smoker noted that the team is also planning a car wash for the spring.

The theme for this year’s national championship, held April 16 to 18, in Atlanta is “Lunancy” in honor of the 40th anniversary of the moon landing.

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