Massapequa native drives award-winning Hicksville robotics team
The J-Birds, Hicksville High School’s robotics team, recently took first place at the Half Hollow Hills Invitational Robotics Competition that was held in Dix Hills earlier this month. It’s the latest bit of success that the team has had in a history dating back to the program’s founding in 2004. Ever since Massapequa-born teacher and team adviser Cathy Temps took the helm in January of that year, she has guided her charges to a trio of World Championship appearances in Detroit in addition to winning a slew of other competitions. It really adds up to the J-Birds being the little program that could. There’s plenty of sweat equity that goes into building these robots, running them through tests and learning how to optimally operate them, with the build season starting in January and running right up through when the invitationals start in late March at Hofstra. The competition is fierce, with entrants not only coming from nearby New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut, but hailing from as far away as Turkey, China and Brazil. Between the cost of materials and price of the entry fees for the aforementioned competitions and the Michigan trip the following month, should the J-Birds get that far, competing is quite an expensive endeavor.
“We start in September, because fundraising is a big thing to do. We just registered for the first week, which is $5,000. We had to get that done by the beginning of November. So we fund-raised that already,” Temps explained. “We’re actually fundraising for the next competition, provided that there’s a spot for us because right now, we’re on the waiting list for the second regional. That’s another $4,000. We generate a lot of fundraising, but we also do a lot of community service.”
With between 45 to 55 students (freshmen through seniors) participating in the program annually (and a nearly 50-50 split between boys and girls), Temps’s team members also get involved with a number of community-driven volunteer initiatives beyond robotics. Suffice it to say, there is a lot of cross-pollination going on between robotics and other programs, be they school-related like student government, the PTA or the WINK program, or working with outside nonprofit groups like the Sarah Grace Foundation.
“We do a lot of volunteer stuff. It’s about giving back to the community. We generate everything throughout the school. If there’s a penny auction from the PTA, we help them set up. We’re the go-to people in the building to help out,” she said.
As one of eight growing up in Massapequa, Temps was always used to being a go-getter from a young age. It was a tech teacher she had growing up who inspired her to go down the same path as a single mom looking to support her two young daughters. Two-plus decades into her time with the Hicksville, she appreciates the irony of winding up with this district.
“Ironically, the tech teacher I had in Massapequa was Mr. Naccarato. His son Nick is actually the tech teacher here at the middle school,” she said. “When I came for the interview here and they asked me how I got into tech, I told them about Mr. Naccarato and they said his son works here. It was funny.”
Core members of the J-Birds help this robotics team succeed and among Temps’ key go-to students are the Diaz brothers. Felix, the eldest, who is currently wrapping up his associate’s degree in residential construction at the State University of New York at Delhi, helped the veteran teacher go to back-to-back World Championships in Detroit. Also helping out was middle brother Alex, who is a current senior and is helping groom younger brother Kevin to become the latest Diaz to lead the J-Birds to robotics glory. The youngest sibling has already made his mark as he and operator Aditya Khatri directed a student-built machine to win that recent Long Island Regional Championship, which allowed the team to qualify for the World Championship. For Alex, becoming a J-Bird was just part of a natural progression for the trio.
“My brother actually had Temps for class and he got to drive the older robot because she saw he could actually drive it,” Alex explained. “We’re actually a family of gamers. We grew up playing many video games. One day I was playing and [Felix] asked if I wanted to come to school with him and when I asked him why, he said we were going to drive the robot. That’s when I first joined the team, which was two years ago. The next year after he graduated, I was actually the driver of the robot, with my operator Nina. My brother’s year, we went to Worlds because of a wild card. Last year we went to the Worlds, because we won first place. And now we have my little brother here and we’re going to try for a third.”
For Temps, who counts woodworking, world tech and material processing as some of the classes she teaches, the takeaways for the students that count themselves as J-Birds are immeasurable and richly rewarding.
“What I love seeing is the teamwork and getting a thrill out of how they don’t know each other—there are all walks of life in this classroom. Whatever the mix is, everybody gets together. By the time you get through the program, it’s like a giant family,” she said. “What I see from kids that I talk to after they graduate is they end up in the field of engineering or teaching. They’re actually able to speak for themselves, walk into a room and actually own it, and that’s big, because they’re working together here. They may be a quiet little mouse when they come here, but they’re going to pull it together enough that they’re able to do it there after they graduate.”