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High School Robotics teams get ready to rumble

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Robotics team advisor John Bell works with team member Gage Grunst. (Kim Brasel/FOCUS).2 / 3
Robotics team advisor John Bell works with team members Fred Fleming, Jeffrey Randall, and Kaia McDonald as they start on their robot for the 2018 season. (photo Kim Brasel/FOCUS).3 / 3

Build a robot from scratch. No instructions provided. End product must be able to carry out complicated tasks. You have six weeks. Go.

Aaron Slettebak said that challenge has kept him coming back to the Perham High School Robotics team for the last three years. "I also enjoy seeing everyone working together and figuring out how to get it done, and I enjoy building stuff."

High School science teacher John Bell is the team's robotics team advisor. He said their season kicked off January 6, in Nevis, where there was a live web broadcast of the rules. Bell said there were about 200 people, or 15-20 teams, at the kick off.

"They had some of the game components built to give the teams an idea of what they are shooting for in the end," he said.

The program is a part of the FIRST (For Inspiration & Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition. The FIRST Robotics Competition Game is a science and tech program for high school students and is one in a progression of four programs that make up the international robotics program. The robotics teams are given strict rules and six weeks to design and build a robot. The end goal is to play a field game against other robots at the Northern Lights Regional competition in Duluth, March 1-4. The theme for the game changes each year, this year the theme is a 1980s arcade.

When asked about misconceptions, Bell and Slettebak look at each other, smile, and almost in unison, state with a roll of their eyes, "this is not battlebots," referring to the competition that is for remote-controlled armed and armored machines designed to fight in an arena combat elimination tournament.

At these competitions, the goal is to complete tasks, not destroy one another.

Bell said another misconception is that people think you need to be super smart about robots to be a part of the robotics team.

"I encourage people to come and check it out. We don't have all the answers; we are looking things up and learning as we go," he said. "Anyone can be in robotics and contribute to the team. That's one of the misconceptions I work against."

Teams aren't provided with plans for their robot, each one designs and builds their own. Bell said they work to determine what they will need the robot to accomplish in the game and design it to meet those needs. For example, the robot will need to do climbing and lift items. Each team is provided with a 60-page game manual for guidance.

This is Bell's third year as the coach. He said his first year was a learning experience since he hadn't done anything like this before.

"I had a pretty young team at that time, so I relied on the seniors," he said. "My physics background helps, and I'm familiar with some of the mechanics, but there are a lot of tricks people working with robotics employ. But then you also have to learn how the how the game works, so there was a learning curve."

Bell thinks it's important to have a program like this on campus because it fills that gap in extra curricular activities for students who may not have an interest in athletics, and it teaches a variety of great skills.

"This is an excellent hand-ons activity where kids can learn things such as computer programming, designing and budgeting," Bell said.

Those skills are also looked at favorably by colleges, Bell added. He thinks being an alumni of the First Robotics program is also good for college applications.

While a program like this has many positive aspects, challenges it runs into include funding and finding enough people.

"Just when someone gets good with designing or computer programming they graduate, so you have to find someone else to fill those shoes. That's why it would be great to have the programs where the kids start a younger age," Bell said.

FIRST Robotics has programs for younger students that start in elementary school.

There are three other programs that are a part of FIRST and are stepping stones to the high school robotics program: Lego League Jr. for ages 6-10, where the purpose is to introduce STEM concepts to kids using Legos; Lego League for grades 4-8. At this level the teams research a real-world problem, then design, build and program a robot using Lego Mindstorm and compete on a table-top playing field; and Tech Challenge for grades 7-12. At this level the 10-plus member teams, are challenged to design, build, program, and operate robots to compete in a head-to-head challenge in an alliance format.

In addition to filling shoes, funding can be a challenge. "It's not cheap to build a robot, and to continually need that revenue can be difficult."

Corporate sponsors play a big role, PentAir covers the base kit and entry fee into competition, which is $5,000. Locally, they have a number of companies who are sponsoring and help out in various ways, such as Kitt Master.

Despite the challenges, Bell said what they accomplish in six short weeks is worth it and his favorite part.

"I think what we do in that time frame is really something else. You go from nothing to a having a robot you are driving around with a joystick and computer and competing at a pretty high level."

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