Alex Grundmann always loved building different things, so when he got to middle school he joined the Rocky Point Robo Eagles, a LEGO robotics team.
He thought he’d fit right in — that was until he saw the size of the competition tables.
“I joined the rookie robotics team in the sixth grade and I didn’t come back as a seventh-grader because I was discouraged,” the 14-year-old said. “The tables were too high and I couldn’t compete.”
Born with cerebral palsy, he’s bound to a wheelchair and can’t see the tops of the tables where his robots roam, climb and move. But the eighth-grader didn’t give up. “I saw my friends having such a good time and I really wanted to try it out again,” he told GreaterPortJeff.
“I was concerned when Alex first came back to robotics because I knew the limitations he was going to have when competing,” said the school’s robotic’s coach Mark Moorman.
“But when they came up with this idea, that was just a home-run.”
The idea came from Alex and his teammates: a portable, lightweight ramp that unfolds to give him and his wheelchair the ability to see what the other kids see.
The team of seven drew up the prototype and with the help of Alex’s dad and donations from Riverhead Building Supply.
The wooden ramp on wheels was made.
It took some trial and error, but the project was a success — just in time for the FIRST LEGO League Long Island Championships, held this past weekend.
“Mr. Moorman told me this year’s theme was ‘City Shaper’ and asked me what is a problem that I face in the community,” Alex said. “I thought about it for a few days, and came up with the ramp… the team helped me build it so many other people can compete at robotics tournaments.”
On March 1, Rocky Point’s team, the Robo Eagles, headed to Longwood High School as one of the 39 schools to participate in the championship. The competition is run in collaboration with FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) and the School-Business Partnership of Long Island, Inc. to get students interested in STEM.
The students build, code and program robots that complete timed missions to earn points, while also creating a research project based on this year’s theme: finding a problem in the community and fixing it. They present the project to a panel of judges who ask questions.
“It’s not just about playing games,” said Bertram Dittmar, executive director of FIRST. “We judge them based on how they interact with each other and how they can impact society.”
The ramp was the Rocky Point’s project.
“Alex had a problem and we wanted to fix it for him,” said his teammate, Kristian Hald. “It’s unfortunate that people like Alex can’t do robotics. Robotics is such a fun thing, so now with what we came up with, people like him can do the same thing that I can do.”
To create it, the team did some extensive research.
One of the first things they did was look up the guidelines from the American with Disabilities Act for the proper regulations for a wheelchair accessible ramp.
“We have a project that helps maybe thousands of students worldwide that can now participate in this program who couldn’t before because the tables were just too high,” said coach Moorman. “It’s not just Alex, it’s everyone like Alex who couldn’t participate.”
The Rocky Point Robo Eagles didn’t take home the first-place win at Sunday’s competition, but they did win the Judges Award for their “innovative project design” of the handicap ramp.
“I’m really proud because something so simple can make a big change in the robotics community,” said Alex.
Scroll down to see photos from the Long Island robotics tournament. Photos by Julianne Mosher.