St. Louis, Missouri, is the center of the robotics universe this weekend, with 29,000 students and 800 robots competing in the FIRST Robotics World Championships. The teams come from all over the world, including 24 from Minnesota -- one of the few states where high school robotics is a varsity, letter-awarding activity.
Teams are competing in three days of robotics matches, grouped into divisions. One of the teams carrying a strong tradition and high hopes hails from the tiny town of Greenbush, Minnesota. The Gators of Greenbush-Middle River High School are competing with teams from all over the United States as well as Canada, Australia, Israel, China and elsewhere.
FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics became an official MSHSL activity in 2012 and has grown like gangbusters. Greenbush-Middle River is in year three of robotics, and its 44 involved students is more than one-third of the entire student body.
The Gators were champions of a recent FIRST regional at the University of Northern Iowa, winning all 16 matches in which they competed. They also competed at a regional in Duluth, where they were knocked out in a late round. Now they’re competing with the best in the world, which is quite a feat for kids from extreme northern Minnesota.
“We’re a rural community, tucked away in northwest Minnesota, and our FIRST Robotics team has really become a leader in the state,” said Greenbush-Middle River superintendent Tom Jerome.
Each year, a different game is used by all FIRST Robotics teams. The 2016 game is called Stronghold. FIRST describes it as “two Alliances of three robots each are on a Quest to breach their opponents’ fortifications, weaken their tower with boulders, and capture the opposing tower. Robots score points by breaching opponents’ defenses and scoring boulders through goals in the opposing tower. During the final 20 seconds of the Quest, robots may surround and scale the opposing tower to capture it.”
Mary Anderson, who teaches science and math, is the Gators robotics “coach.” The students, however, take the lead in all sorts of tasks, from designing the robot to driving the robot to finding sponsors and raising money to publicizing the team’s accomplishments. Robotics is unlike traditional sports in that team members are always willing to assist other teams, whether it be with engineering, repairs, tools or anything else that comes up.
“My favorite part of the competitions is meeting all the different people,” said Greenbush-Middle River student Joe Hlucny. “There are so many people, and getting to communicate and work with them to accomplish a goal is a lot of fun and it’s a great experience. It gets you ready for other times in life when you’ll have to do that, for sure.”
Robotics is not an inexpensive activity. The Gators have dozens of sponsors, including the University of Minnesota, Polaris and Central Boiler, a Greenbush-based company that is one of the largest manufacturers in northwestern Minnesota.
“Central Boiler is a key player for us; they open up their facilities for our kids,” Jerome said. “Farmers and machinists in the area open their shops as work areas. When we qualified to go to the world championships on a Saturday, by Monday night Polaris had committed more than $10,000.”
A key aspect of the program is student development. Instead of staying home and playing video games by themselves, team members work long hours together.
“We require 30 hours from every student in order to go to a competition,” Gators team member Hannah Anderson said. “We had 29 eligible to go to our first competition in Duluth, and if they got their hours, they were able to go to Iowa. It was like 2,500 student hours. The mentors weren’t counted in that, but they put a lot of time in, too. The grand total was probably 5,000 hours-plus. You have people thinking about it in their sleep, and not sleeping because they’re thinking about it.”
Jon Langaas said, “During build season, when we go out to the shop or do anything here we document our hours. At the shop I usually got out there at about 3 and I left most nights around 11; Saturdays and Sundays were like 8 to 11. I spend probably way too much time on the robot, but that’s everything that I do in the winter now.”
It’s not a stretch to say that robotics changes lives in many ways, whether it be making new friends or choosing career paths.
“It’s just made me a better person, overall,” said the Gators’ Brady Kilen. “The teamwork that I’ve put in with everyone; I’ve gotten to know everyone better in working with each other. I’ve become more confident as a person, too.”
Teammate Blake Dallager said, “Over the winter months I’m not in any sports so I would just go to school and then go home after that. Without robotics I never would be speaking in front of you right now. For sponsorships, we go out and talk in front of 10, 20 people. I never would have had the opportunity to do that, or to go to Iowa or St. Louis or anything like that, and meet people from China and Brazil and Australia. It’s basically awesome to get out of the house, meet new people and go new place and try new things.”
Jerome, a former high school hockey coach and longtime hockey official, said he was mesmerized the first time he saw a FIRST Robotics competition, at Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis.
“This might sound corny, but I walked down, I went on the floor and I kind of teared up,” he said. “I thought, ‘We have to replicate what’s going on in FIRST Robotics in every classroom we have.’ I saw kids brainstorming with other kids, kids from Greenbush-Middle River to Edina and Warroad and Roseau. They work together on problem-solving: ‘You and I are on different teams, but hey how can I help you?’
“When kids come together in this program, they’re handed a problem to solve with not enough money, not enough facilities and not enough time. And that’s kind of real life. They’re asked to solve it, and the only way they can do that is by communicating, brainstorming, sharing ideas and growing. It’s pure, it’s simple, it’s demanding, it’s tough, it’s planning, it’s brainstorming.
“When you see kids scratching their heads, and they’re huddled up together, kids from different communities, and they’re trying to fix that person’s problem, you just go, ‘Wow.’ It really is amazing.”
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 644
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 10,214