Good to Go Blog

At St. John's, good knows no bounds. It's greater than great academics. Here are snapshots of what it means at the Prep. Something amazing happens when you're open to good!

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In a countdown to competition, the fabrication labs inhabited by the Prep robotics team are cacophonous and chaotic, but cached in the clamor is an integrated, collaborative workflow that usually results in a trophy 

The legendary and now-retired NASA flight director Gene Kranz served the agency for nearly four decades and is best known for his role in saving the crew of Apollo 13 in 1970—just his fourth year on the job. Kranz once summed up the day-to-day at Mission Control as follows: “Spaceflight will never tolerate carelessness, incapacity, and neglect.” The clever and concise maxim is a pretty apt description of what to avoid when building a robot, too. As software designer Chris Jerrett ’18 puts it: “Let’s face it, a lot can go wrong.”

This Saturday morning, weeks of preparation inside the Keefe Academic Center will progress from planning and development to the execution stage when three teams from St. John’s take on 48 other squads during the VEX Robotics Competition at North Andover High. The tournament marks the first of two chances for the Eagles to qualify for the Southern New England High School VRC Starstruck Championship next March.

A tremendous degree of engineering and software design takes place before a team sets down its creation into the competitive arena that this year will be a 12-x-12 square foot field of play. But at the end of the day, a robotics competition is exactly what it sounds like. One school’s machine must outperform the others to advance. That is: disrupt, impede, out-innovate, outscore and/or outsmart. Since Prep students first dipped their collective toes into competitive robotics in 2010, the results have been downright bionic. Quantitatively, that tips the scales at more than two dozen trophies in seven seasons, with the eighth currently underway.

Be that as it may, past success hasn’t left the Eagles any less hungry or contemplative, and it certainly hasn’t made anyone cocky.

“Everyone says I’ve been pretty skeptical about what our expectations should be leading up to this competition, but I will say we are confident in our design,” says Gavin Garland ’18, the hardware captain for the Prep’s “Mecha Eagles Team A” entry in tomorrow’s tournament, who was forced to raise his voice and lean in to be heard over the bustle inside the Computer Science Department’s practice space earlier this week. “At the same time, we really don’t know where all the other schools are in terms of what stage of development they’re at. Historically, the Prep has been better than most teams in the early part of the season, but we haven’t remained near the top as the season progresses and other teams catch up. We’re hoping to reverse that this year.”

A WHOLE NEW WORLD

This year’s rubric in VEX competitions is dubbed “In the Zone.” Teams compete in matches consisting of a 15-second autonomous period (more on this later) followed by a one minute, 45 second stretch of driver-controlled play. That’s where the similarities to last year’s rules end. The object of the game in 2017-18 is to attain a higher score by stacking cones on goalposts, scoring mobile goals by transporting cones into goal zones and by parking robots. There are 80 cones that can be stacked on 10 goalposts (five per team) during a match. Some cones begin in designated locations on the field, while others are available to be entered into the field during the match. For spatial context, it’s important to note that robots must be smaller than 18x18x18 inches for this year’s competition.

The fixed-location cones and goals are where robots’ autonomous function comes into play. Software designers like Jerrett—as opposed to a hardware specialist like Garland, who actually leads the engineering design and construction of the robot to squeeze optimum efficiency from the nuts and bolts by customizing the bot to the rules of this year’s game—create the programing algorithms that comprise the robot’s brain. A programming algorithm is a computer procedure that, much like a recipe, tells a software interface precisely what steps the integrated hardware should to take to solve a problem or reach a goal. In short, it’s a smart guy programming a hunk of metal (with apologies to Garland and his fellow hardware gurus) to obey highly refined commands.

Jerrett, the Mecha Eagles Team A software captain, explains that the 15-second autonomous period can be a critical window to score points because cones sit in definitive positions and the robot can be pre-programmed to zip to those locations and carry the cones to prescribed spots on the playing grid to score points before student drivers even get involved in the competition. The Prep won an Innovation Award at the 2016 Southern New England Championship in large part due to a robot’s autonomous function. Naturally, programming like that takes more than a few weeks.

“We have all the driver-controlled (“teleoperated” in competitive robotics parlance) software complete at this point,” says Jerrett. “The autonomous software that guides the robot without human participation is something we refine as the season progresses. It’s not our focus right now. From a software design perspective, this week has been about debugging and adjusting the controls based upon our drivers’ preferences. Our 15 seconds of autonomous function on Saturday will be all about a blocking program. In other words, just interfering with the ability of the other team’s robot to score.”

Blocking and scoring in the zone isn’t the only challenge teams face during competition. Judges closely inspect each bot over the course of an hour and 15 minutes before matches start. At lunchtime, judges circulate and interview each team member about their specific role in the robot’s construction. Teams must surrender their engineering book to judges as well, which must contain detailed daily notes about plans and decisions the team made in terms of engineering and software design—including mathematical proofs and line-by-line coding—leading up to the competition.

GAME ON

In a tournament setting, competing schools are divided into four-team groupings for round-robin play. Following these initial rounds, all 51 teams will be ranked according to their points scored. The top eight teams advance to the knockout rounds where each match becomes a best-of-three format.

But here’s the kicker: Each quarterfinalist must choose two partner teams from round-robin play to create an alliance because knockout round play features four robots in the zone at once (that is, a quarterfinalist robot and another school’s robot its designers choose to partner with vs. another quarterfinalist and its chosen partner bot). Each chosen alliance robot alternates in partnering with the quarterfinalist bot as the competition advances.

This collaborative process of forming alliances is where the rubber meets the road in competitive robotics. Why? Because the 43 teams that don’t qualify for the top eight on Saturday must make their case to quarterfinalist teams from other schools that their own robot is the perfect complement to the quarterfinalist bot. In other words, “Your robot does these things well, but is weak at this other aspect of the competition, and that’s a strength of our robot. You need us.”

“The personal advocacy is huge,” says Garland. “You have to lobby why your robot is good with another. If we ourselves are a quarterfinalist and we’re in the position of choosing, we have to be smart and picky.”

Indeed, there are no idle hands in competitive robotics. “Everybody’s got a job to do at a competition and if you’re idle, you’re scouting,” says Jerrett.

If one or more of the Prep teams can find the sweet spot between design and diplomacy this season, the Eagles will have a legitimate shot at qualifying for the Southern New England meet and a chance to advance to the 2018 VEX Robotics World Championship in Louisville, Kentucky next April.

“Our goal this season is to attend World’s,” says assistant club moderator and computer science teacher Lisa Standring. “That would be a first for the Prep, so that’s what we’re shooting for.”

THE FUTURE IS NOW

There are far too many cool tidbits about competitive robotics to recount in a single tournament preview. But know this: Ambition knows no bounds. For example, the Mecha Eagles Team A robot is equipped with a dual-driver switching control (yes, that means two students drive the robot at the same time) that allows one driver to pilot the robot in reverse (because the cone-lifting component resides along the backside of the bot), while the other driver is responsible for forward motion. Team A drivers are jake Duran ’18 and Matt Folan ’18.

Mind you, Mecha Eagles Team B is no slouch. Jack Busa ’18 is the hardware captain, while Fred Lu ’18 captains software and Adam Rutledge ’20 serves as the driver (though Busa will drive tomorrow with Rutledge participating in the sophomore retreat). Next is the all-freshman Mecha Eagles Team C, which lobbied unsuccessfully to be entered into tomorrow’s competition as the “CEagles.” The difficult but deeply gratifying duty of stewarding the freshmen squad has fallen to affable and self-effacing senior Forrest Dawe.

“The biggest challenge is that these guys don’t know robotics,” says Dawe. “What’s great is that we can show them early in their time with this team how we want the buildup to a competition to run. We can show them the engineering and design processes. They’re very dedicated. We’re a little behind on completing the build of the robot because we have to explain everything every step of the way, but this will be a great experience for them. They see what this team is like and they’ll see what it’s like to be part of tournament competition. It’s a good learning experience.”

The bar has been set pretty high for newcomers to the program. By way of example, an anecdote from the 2016-17 campaign illustrates the standard of excellence that permeates competitive robotics at the Prep. During a tournament last season, lead moderator and computer science teacher Bernie Gilmore ’80 become displeased with a group of idle team members who were apparently ignoring his instructions scout opposing teams. Mr. Gilmore was promptly informed that the group had set up a camera on a tripod that was recording matches and automatically uploading the scouting footage the team’s YouTube page.

“This is what we’re dealing with,” says Standring. “Sometimes you think they’re not listening and it turns out they’re way ahead of you.”

That said, there’s little chance that the Eagles will rest on their laurels. Earlier this week, as the team posed for a group photo displaying the program’s copious stash of past tournament trophies, Mr. Gilmore broke up the gathering with a good-natured challenge: “OK, now go back to work and go win some trophies for yourself instead of standing around with trophies won by other kids in other seasons.”

Pictured above: The VEX Robotics Competition, presented by the Robotics Education & Competition Foundation, is the world’s largest and fastest-growing middle and high school robotics competition. Each year, an engineering challenge is presented in the form of a game. Students, with guidance from their teachers and mentors, build innovative robots and compete year-round in a variety of matches. VEX competition draws a million student competitors populating 20,000 teams across 45 countries. This year’s Prep team: (front row) Ryan Jermany ’21, Anthony Crivello ’21, Delby Urena ’21, Michael Baraty ’19, Brandon Saad ’20; (back row) Gamaliel Aviles ’21, Robotics Club President Gavin Garland ’18, Chris Jerrett ’18, Daniel Dischino ’21, Jacob Duran ’18, Jason Jermany ’19, Fred Lu’18, Henry Fuller ’21, Peter Zarakas ’18, Nick Stearns ’20, Christian DeSimone ’18, Cole Busa ’20, Cameron Pilla ’20 and Forrest Dawe ’18. (Not pictured: Jack Busa ’18 and Adam Rutledge ’20)

Posted by Mr. Chad Konecky on Friday November 17
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Five things you’ll learn at St. John’s

What do superlative academics look like at the Prep? It’s about learning what you need to know. It’s about the five essential skills that matter most. Come for shadow day and see us in action.

1. Writing persuasively: More than just words on a page

Writing plays a critical role across the curriculum at St. John’s Prep, and it ranks among the top skills demanded by universities and employers. Developing good writers has long been a priority throughout our academic program, not just in English class.

“There’s really no such thing as being a math/science kid vs. an English/history kid in today’s world,” says the Prep’s Assistant Principal for Academics for Grades 9 and 10, Stacey Banos. “Because if you want to be an engineer, for example, you’re going to need to know how to write so you can apply for grants.”

We believe that the more students write, the better they write, and as they’re exposed to different styles across disciplines, each has a chance to develop his own writing voice. Teachers undertake the demanding role of mentors and coaches, providing students with clear rubrics for completing the assignment at hand along with counsel on how to improve their performance.

This overarching mission is supported by the Writing Center at St. John’s, which offers students one-on-one consultations with full-time, trained writing coaches to assist with any stage of the writing process. The mission of the center staff is to guide students toward becoming confident and independent writers who will succeed at the Prep and beyond. The Center’s services include discussion of texts and writing assignments, assistance with planning and outlining, grammar and mechanics support and strategizing for meaningful revision. Available to writers in grades 6 through 12, at all levels, the Writing Center is open Monday through Friday from 8:30 am to 4:30 pm and is located within the Prep’s Center for Learning and Academic Success (CLAS).

“The Writing Center has become more than just a place to improve my writing, says Justin Martinez ’21. “It has become a place where I feel comfortable to go any time of the day. Over the many visits I have made to the Writing Center, I have had many opportunities to learn new things each time. My writing has improved. From grammar to using proper format with the Modern Language Association Style Manual.”

2. Speaking articulately: The best possible first impression

Expressing oneself thoughtfully and with clarity is another key curricular priority at St. John’s. The Prep’s cross-disciplinary African American Studies class, co-taught by a social studies and an English literature teacher, is teeming with those kinds of conversations. The year-long elective is crafted to deliver a full semester of historical content and context followed by a semester of interrelated and chronologically synced primary source literature. Lively discourse about poetry, prose, biography, first-hand accounts and historical documents spanning generations is a centerpiece of this course.

“What impresses me most about this class is that I’m able to go into the classroom with peers and open up and engage respectfully about some pretty explicit topics,” says Elijah Casseus ’18. “Guys in this class want to know more and then discuss it to further their education.

3. Conducting and interpreting research: It’s your all-access pass

Developing research skills and the capacity to make determinations about the subject matter involved is a vital component of the course of study at the Prep. Our graduates regularly convey their appreciation for their level of preparedness and expertise as they execute research papers and inquiry-based, fact-finding projects in college.

The Prep’s Investment Club, for example, consists of 40 students who collectively manage a small portfolio and donate a portion of what they earn each year to a cause supported by St. John’s. Club members conduct research on companies and stocks, then present their findings to peers with recommendations about whether and when the club should sell or buy, and why. “They’re taking their skills in math, economics, history and English and putting them into action,” says Headmaster Edward P. Hardiman, Ph.D.

4. Collaboration: Anything you can do, we can do better together

Project-based learning at St. John’s promotes skills mastery across multiple platforms and empowers thinking across disciplines. This fall, teachers in the Spanish Department adopted a creative approach to vocabulary memorization that grew into a comprehensive, interactive project which ultimately extended across campus to the Middle School. Three sections of advanced Spanish students—60 in all—paired up to design, write and e-publish 30 Spanish-language children’s books using the Book Creator App for iPad, an assignment that culminated with the high schoolers presenting their work to sixth grade Spanish students at the Middle School.

“Using digital tools and media to create these children’s books allowed for a high-quality product that was easy to share between classmates as well as with our youngest Middle School students,” says Mrs. Julie Cremin, a digital learning specialist at the Prep.

5. Putting ideas into action: Make something your own

Teachers at St. John’s are experts in their content areas, but fundamentally speaking, what they do best is help students learn how to learn. Members of the Prep competitive robotics team, for example, recently applied classical physics and mechanics to engineer an award-winning pneumatic drive system. Meanwhile, the team’s software crew employed advanced mathematical algorithms and computer coding to develop an award-winning software interface. It’s worth noting that robotics team alumni just in the past two years have gone on to study at Purdue, Georgia Tech, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Northeastern, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Carnegie Mellon, Boston College, Rochester Institute of Technology, Harvard, Yale and UMass-Amherst. Not to be outdone, current Prep students in the Computer Science Department have completed a project-based learning exercise that delivered real-world solutions throughout the school community using 3D printing, including fabricating a replacement part for our own 3D printer!

At St. John’s Prep, we’re about more than great academics. The Catholic intellectual tradition here is propelled by teachers, students and staff sharing in an intellectual journey and dialogue.

Posted by Mr. Chad Konecky on Thursday November 9
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LIFE AFTER 2:34

One in an occasional series of check-ins on after-school life at St. John’s Prep

The crew for Disney's Beauty & the Beast

Drama Guild Crew

Since 1912, the Drama Guild won the most state championships of any team on campus, wowing audiences with everything from Shakespeare and Disney to original plays.

Behind the curtain

Crew members handle set design & construction, props, lighting, sound and wardrobe.

How it works

As the show behind the show, the crew (or kroo as we call it) is responsible for the backdrop, scenery, stage decor, illumination, gear and any acoustic boost that supports every actor on the set. They're on set daily throughout show production, plus Saturday rehearsals and show dates.

Believe it or not

“The first blueprints and initial set designs are wildly different from what ends up on stage. It’s pretty remarkable. Once stuff starts to go up on set, the realities change. We just finished rebuilding a platform at stage left for the third or fourth time because it sits on the raked portion of the stage (which assists in providing the illusion of perspective and depth of field for the audience). It was hard to get that right.” – Set Director Enzo Arcari ’18

Design and build

“When people think of the theater, they think of the actors. But without a creative crew, we’ve got nothing fun to look at and the actors have nothing to brandish or hold onto and nothing to stand on or be seen in with no way to be heard or properly lit. There’s a great deal of behind-the-scenes design and planning that goes into any show and the great thing is, it’s all the students. We’re just here to guide them.” – Artistic Director of Theater Arts, Alicia Greenwood

Crew for “Beauty & the Beast”

Enzo Arcari ’18, Matteo Zirpolo ’21, Mathew Pasersky ’20, Joe Carter ’20, Connor Duggan ’18, Blake Buonopane ’21 (set design & construction); Casey Beriau ’21, Esteban Galindo-Carvajal ’19 (costumes); Colin Linehan ’21, David Gilblair ’20, Max Murray ’20, Paul Wehle ’21, Spencer Lawson ’21 (sound); Gabriel Gonzales ’20; John Sheridan ’20, William Boemer ’21 (props); Jack Charron ’19, Jack Clasby ’21 and Lars Purcell ’19 (lighting).

Posted by Mr. Chad Konecky on Friday November 3
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