Robotics and chess: thriving clubs at NDP

Critical thinking skills and competitive fun


Seniors Devon Lauffer and Sophia Asta working on a project (Jerry Asta/Special to the Seraphim

By Samantha Torre, Staff Writer

In 2011, freshman Austin Hertago approached Deacon Carbone at an Notre Dame Preparatory ice cream social, asking if he’d help create a school robotics team. Carbone agreed, but only if Hertago managed the team, while Carbone served as the moderator. Thus, NDP robotics team #3577 competed in its first season with seven students on the roster.

Since then, the program has grown significantly and has traveled to several competitions, including trips to Flagstaff and Las Vegas.

Senior Sophia Asta, a team member since freshman year, remembers her first year.

“When we started there were eight boys and me,” she said.

Last year, there were 21 students, including four girls.

“[Now] there are bigger goals as well,” Asta remarked.

In the beginning, the team focused on building the robot, according to Asta. Now, the team is working on becoming involved in the community, as evidenced through their team service projects.

The club has become a melting pot of athletes, gamers, and honors students alike who have come together because they want to learn about building robots and concepts such as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, aka STEM.


Junior Sarah Ferenczi and volunteer engineer Gerry Katafaisz work on a robot (Sophia Asta/Special to the Seraphim).

Collaboration is an essential part of robotics, so to help foster team bonding, Carbone stopped appointing a club president after noticing that there was occasional tension between the “leaders” and students.

“Students don’t take orders from students very well,” he stated.

As a remedy, he took away the “president model” and replaced it by putting his seniors in charge for the upcoming season. Another reason for this change was his observation that the presidents didn’t enjoy the associated administrative tasks because it took them away from helping build the robot.

“The fact is a lot of these kids join robotics because they want to have their hands on the machine,” Carbone explained.

The robotics season launches into full gear (pun intended) every January with NDP’s participation in an organization called For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology” (aka FIRST), which hosts international robotics competitions. FIRST holds a reveal event, where the “game” is announced and supplementary materials are passed out to the competing teams. The “game” is a competition in which robots must complete a task, while also competing against each other to determine who can best execute the task. For example, the 2016 medieval-themed season had robots “storm a castle” by throwing balls at fake towers to score “goals.”

Next, students spend six weeks building a robot weighing approximately 100 pounds that can participate in multiple competitions; students must also write a computer code that will control the robot. It’s a bustling time of the year, as there is only so much time to brainstorm ideas, buy materials, prototype, test the robot’s abilities,  and rebuild if necessary.

An NDP robot rests in Room 901 after its competition days are over (Samantha Torre/The Seraphim).

Senior Matthew Griffin described this period as “six weeks of absolute chaos.”

However, he also noted that amidst the chaos there is productivity.

“Everyone always plays a helping hand in putting everything together,” he noted.

One of the best aspects about the building process is that it is student-led, and the robot is student-built. According to Carbone, the students brainstorm to determine what they want to do, and along with two parent assistants, he helps the team figure out logistics, while allowing the students to take the reigns.

As he put it, “They have to own it.”

After exactly six weeks, the team must put the robot, complete or not, into a plastic bag so that no one can secretly work on it. An outside source signs it with the date and time it was put into the bag. Then, it is time for the competitions.

All competitions follow a theme that’s created by FIRST. To get teams excited for the new season, FIRST will publish a “teaser” to hint at what activity the robots will have to complete. The teaser for this year hinted at gaming. At the competitions themselves, the “game” that was announced at the reveal event is played out, and points are given to the teams who do the best job. At the end of competition season, teams who perform well are invited to a state championship. Next is a national competition, and eventually, a world championship.

Even after the season ends, robotics team members reap benefits that can aid them beyond high school. One of the main benefits is continuing their interest in STEM. Griffin joined the team his sophomore year because it catered to his current interest in robotics and engineering, as well as his future goals.

“I knew it was something I want to do later in life and I knew it was something that was definitely growing in the world,” he explained.

Griffin, who wants to be an entrepreneur, reasoned that since robotics is a growing field, it would be helpful to know what technologies and fields are currently popular.

Asta, who wants to major in engineering in college, joined robotics because she heard positive feedback about it from an NDP alumni, and because she enjoys building.

Another benefit are the life skills gained from working in a team environment that focuses on “hands-on” activity. For instance, Asta recognized that being organized and planning for disasters are essential because machines can break, and team members must have back-up plans or must be able to think outside the box. Also, robotics teaches students to be open to learning new things. Carbone recognized that some students tend to be afraid of STEM, even those who do join the team.

“People are intimidated by a science-technology formation,” he observed.

However, Carbone noticed that eventually those who were intimidated became comfortable.  That being said, he hopes that the robotics team allows students to be more encouraged to learn.

“If you have an interest to learn, you can learn to do anything,” he said.

Since 2011, the NDP robotics team has been building robots and diving deeper into what a STEM career could be like. However, students gain other benefits as well, such as a feeling of community and helpful life skills. In a world where STEM jobs will play a vital part in society, team #3577 is well on its way to successful robots and successful futures.

In the competition in Flagstaff, the team ranked 39th out of 62 teams, and in Las Vegas they placed 29th out of 44 teams.  The NDP robot was the only one in Las Vegas that consistently climbed the end game, according to Carbone, and it was able to “buddy climb” with Team #256 in round 80 in Flagstaff. The team learned to react quickly to adversity when the robot fell off the climb bar and crashed to the floor. By quickly redeploying the climbing mechanism, the team lifted the robot to its feet.

Chess: Battle of the Boards

Senior Thomas Meeks practices his chess strategy (Samantha Torre/The Seraphim).

For those who prefer a more peaceful but still competitive workout, look no further than the chess team, which started in 2006.

Each school year a new season runs from September to the end of October, with twice-a-week practices in room 901. There are chess boards strewn about the room, and students can choose who they want to play. Sophomore Zabinia Arvizu noted, however, that it’s better to play against someone who is more skilled at chess, so that she can learn better defense strategies. Usually, teammates play one to two games each practice. Meanwhile, the team coach, Rich DesMarais, walks around the room giving tips on strategies to all players, including savvy seniors Thomas Meeks and Katie Olson and junior Tim Ryan.

Tournaments hosted by the Arizona Interscholastic Association can last as long as seven hours. During tournaments, players compete in three games. The winner of the games receives a “higher rating.” Even though the games are competitive, players will still politely point out mistakes, so that their opponents can improve in the future. Because chess tournaments are hosted by the AIA, students can receive a varsity letter for being on the team.

DesMarais, parent of Lindsay ‘18 and Nick ‘15, has been the head coach since 2016. During Nick’s junior and senior year, DesMarais began his involvement with the team. According to Carbone, DesMarais realized that he enjoyed working with the students, and he even conducted workshops and lessons with the team, since he was experienced in chess. As Carbone became increasingly busy working with the robotics team, he asked DesMarais if he would be interested in being the head coach. Since becoming head coach, DesMarais has played a huge role in aiding both experienced and new players.

“It has been a huge success,” said Carbone, who serves as school moderator. “He has … taught and mentored the students well beyond any level that I could have. We have players that had never moved a chess piece in their life, and by the end of their senior year, they’re beating very, very good players.”

DesMarais enjoys seeing how students improve over the years and how happy newcomers are when they win a game. One memorable moment was when a new chess player made a comeback and won her game after remembering advice he gave her.

“You realize that something you told them really sunk in, and that it helped them win the game,” he shared.

Like other extracurricular activities, chess has many benefits.

For example, Arvizu noticed that since she started playing chess, she can think better and faster.

“Those are really good skills to have, especially when you’re going into AP or Honors classes, ” she said.

Multiple studies reveal that chess has the capacity to enhance cognitive skills. One study from the Islamic Azad University in Kurdistan, Iran, done in 2011 tested how learning chess can enhance students’ methods of thinking. For the study, 180 primary and junior high students in Sanandaj, Iran, were tested; 86 were taught chess for six months, while the other 94 students did not receive instruction.

The researchers found that teaching chess to students “improved significantly their mathematical problem-solving ability.”

A second study conducted by professors at Lebanese University in Beirut, Lebanon, in 2014 showed that playing chess can improve concentration in children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Fourteen students diagnosed with ADHD were taught to play chess twice a week for four months for a span of two years.

“[ The results] revealed an improvement in the concentration tasks,” the study concluded.

While these are exciting discoveries, professors would still like to conduct more research. A third study by Giovanni Sala and Fernand Gobet of the University of Liverpool discussed how more research needs to be confirmed.

“Even if chess, under specific circumstances, seems to positively affect children’s skills, there still are serious doubts about the real effectiveness of its practice,” the study referenced in 2015.

Like robotics, chess can also teach important life skills.

For example, Arvizu noticed that playing chess requires patience: “to play chess … takes a lot of patience and that’s something I have to work on.”

Junior Andrew Erickson also mentioned how patience is especially important for new players, because it can take time to understand the sport.

“It was really important that I was really patient when I kept losing,” he explained.

Erickson observed that he is now winning more often, due to practicing new strategies, something he was able to achieve because of patience.

Another life skill that is gained through chess is confidence. According to DesMarais, confidence from improving in chess transfers to other areas of life.

“They can do other things that they didn’t know they could do if they put their mind to it,” he said.

Even though chess is mainly an individual sport, that doesn’t prevent the 13-member team from bonding with each other.

“They’re all very supportive … I really like to be around them,” Arvizu  said.

In addition, Carbone believes that chess helps shape the mind, something that NDP values, as shown through the school motto: “strengthening minds, bodies, and souls.”

“If you’re forming the mind, you’re forming the body, the physical, the spirit …” said Carbone, who believes that by shaping the mind, one is improving all other aspects of themselves.

For 11 years, NDP’s chess team has been a place for new and experienced players alike. With the help of DesMarais and Carbone, the team has learned skills that will help them on and off the chess board.