At Adelphi, game jams and dunking robots

The VEX Robotics Competition underway at Adelphi. Photo by Zachary Gold.

Long Island’s innovation future took the stage at Adelphi University this weekend, with multiple events attracting some of the region’s most technological minds.

Adelphi was not only a host site for the annual Global Game Jam – a three-day hackathon spread around the world – but also hosted the regional round of the VEX Robotics Competition. The tech-heavy events gave the next generation of programmers, engineers and digital artists ample opportunity to strut their stuff.

Showcases like the GGJ and the VEX Competition – a worldwide tech-off sponsored by the Robotics Education & Competition Foundation that challenges teams to build a better robot based around a single theme – are critical to the development of today’s students and tomorrow’s economy, noted Sabita Nayak, director of Adelphi’s Science Advancement Program.

“This program helps the future engineers of this country,” Nayak said of the VEX competition. “It helps the future economy.”

This was the third consecutive year Adelphi hosted the Long Island regional round of the international robotics contest. This year’s participants included roughly 250 middle and high school students from across Long Island, New York City and Westchester, all working from identical kits to build a robot that could shoot a tennis ball, basketball-style, into a small net.

Well beyond programming and electronics, according to Cortina, participants learned vital professional skills sure to pay economic dividends later.

The kids are learning teamwork,” she told Innovate LI. “They’re learning perseverance. They’re learning professionalism.”

The regional tournament champions – as selected by a panel of judges including area college and high school faculty, engineers, lawyers and others – were teams from Farmingdale High School, Freeport High School and Wantagh High School.

While all three are now eligible for the Southern New York round, slated for March 6 at Glen Cove High School, the Farmingdale squad showed “the highest level of programming, teamwork and skill,” Sabita noted, with a roughly foot-tall robot that sunk 24 of 24 shots.

The regional competition – a step toward the championship competition, scheduled for April in Kentucky – closely mirrors the community-minded STEM programs offered by Adelphi. State grants also help fund Saturday afternoon “enrichment” programs in algebra, robotics and other mathematics and sciences, Cortina noted, with students bused in from numerous Island districts.

A similar mindset brought the Global Game Jam, internationally recognized as one of the world’s largest annual hackathons, to Adelphi. The three-day event, held Friday to Sunday, was staged simultaneously in 80 countries, according to Lee Stemkoski, an associate professor of mathematics and computer science who lobbied Adelphi leaders to bring the jam to Garden City.

Stemkoski – who personally sold Jam organizers on Adelphi’s ability to provide the required space, tech and security – said the university was gung-ho from the start. Along with cybersecurity, game development is one of the main focuses of Adelphi’s computer-science curriculum, the professor noted, while university leaders are keen on increasing the school’s international reach.

“So this really synched with the university’s core values,” he said.

All told, the jam attracted more than 40,000 total participants, including 28 at Adelphi, where six teams set to hacking. Their mission: create a game, from scratch, around a secret theme that wasn’t revealed to participants until 5 p.m. local time on Friday. Selected by the international GGJ committee, this year’s theme was “ritual” – definitely open to some interpretation, Stemkoski noted.

“It could mean an activity you do a on a regular basis, but you could also give it a more mystical interpretation,” he said. “They always pick a vague theme, with multiple ways to read it.”

More cut-and-dry, he added, are the demands put on participants, who range from students to rookie computer engineers to experienced artists.

“There are a lot of programmers,” Stemkoski noted. “And musicians, and writers, and idea people, and managers … all kinds of people. They come together and see what skills they have, then naturally form into groups.”

For 48 hours, those groups eat, sleep and drink game design. Five of the six Adelphi teams completed their projects – the “time crunch” can be a killer, Stemkoski noted – producing an array of games featuring two- and three-dimensional graphics, gamepad controllers like those that operate your Playstation and even motion-sensor technologies.

There were no “winners” – the hackathon is not a competition – but like the younger kids in the robotics competition, Jam participants were given access to resources that sharpened their scientific acumen and developed their teamwork skills.

They were also able to pad their professional portfolios, noted Stemkoski, who sees career development as one of the event’s biggest benefits.

“If you want to get into game development, you have to develop games,” he said. “We’re reaching a critical mass at Adelphi, with about 30 or so students now focused on game development, and I’m always encouraging them to produce things they can show in their portfolios.

“We’ll be looking for other events to participate in, as well as some expos in New York City,” Stemkoski added. “We showed off these games to each other, but we really want students to get out there and get some real exposure.”