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  • Morrison County Record

    Upsala, Swanville compete at FIRST Robotics Competition

    By Joseph Stanichar,

    2024-04-19

    https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=10lfha_0sX0jCQO00

    Hundreds of students, teachers and family members are gathered in an arena as music blasts through giant speakers. Waiting for the next match, the referee first guides the audience through the macarena dance, then starts out a crowd wave. Once all the competitors are ready, a siren blares, with a giant screen zooming into the action for those too far away to get close enough of a look.

    The competitors aren’t playing basketball, baseball or hockey, however. In fact, they aren’t even moving from their spots on either side of the play field. Well, at least not the human competitors.

    Instead, two teams of three robots each speed across the field, with the students controlling them to toss large rings into goals on either side. As the two and a half minute match nears its conclusion, the robots attempt to cling onto chains hung in the field to earn bonus points. Some robots achieve this feat, hoisting themselves into the air. One team is declared the winner as the surrounding crowd screams and cheers. The first qualifying match is over, with 89 more to go before the 15 matches as part of the finals.

    Every one of these 105 matches occurred over one weekend, from the morning of Saturday, April 6 through the afternoon of Sunday, April 7. The River’s Edge Convention Center in St. Cloud played host to the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition Granite City Regional Event – one of the largest and most impactful robotics events Central Minnesota has ever seen. A total of 54 teams of students from grades 7 through 12 from schools across Minnesota, North Dakota and Wisconsin spent the six weeks prior to the event designing, building, programming and perfecting their robots for this alliance-based competition.

    Representing Morrison County were two teams: Upsala High School’s UC-Botics and Swanville High School’s Bodacious Bulldogs. As smaller rural schools, this was the closest regional they’ve attended.

    “Any activity is good for the kids to get into, whether it’s a sport or a one-act play. This one is a good fit for computer programming, CAD software, fabricating, everything you do in the shop,” said Swanville High School science teacher and robotics head coach Jason Lee. “It’s more than likely your kids aren’t gonna go get paid to play football, but they could get paid to go weld somewhere. There are a lot more workforce skills in this. There’s value in everything, but this one I like a lot because it teaches them skills that they can go get paid for someday.”

    In the “pit” area adjacent to the arena, teams displayed their robots and shared strategies. The UC-Botics’ robot featured an upper portion purchased for its inexperienced builders, with modifications to suit their resources. Upsala High School technology coordinator, teacher and robotics coach Curtis Robertson and one of his team members explained how the robot’s conveyor belt and articulating arm work to score rings.

    Dressed a bit like a robot himself, Robertson wore a colorful outfit with buttons, a butterfly pin and pens attached to his jersey, with the one element sticking out the most being his UC-Botics hat, displaying the team logo with an actual blinking orange light perched on top. Robertson’s excited attitude and near-constant smile beamed just as bright as his blinking hat, as he talked enthusiastically about the strides his and other student team members had made over the past six weeks. Whenever he would run into a student he knew, from his own or an opposing team, he greeted them with the same level of encouragement.

    “The amount that this program provides for the kids, not only the engineering aspect and the building aspects, but beyond that: the professionalism, talking with industry professionals … talking with each other and other teams and other schools. They’re all 21st Century skills employers are looking for. A lot of what they do in the building aspect, it’s what they’re aiming for too: troubleshooting, problem solving. How do you do with cooperating?” Robertson said. “It’s awesome.”

    Beyond the competition, the coaches said robotics fosters inclusion and life skills. The UC-Botics team has around 30% special needs students, providing a welcoming space, and roughly a third of all team members are female this year, the highest percentage of girl members the team has had since it started in 2013. At the event, one of Robertson’s badges was held up by a strap featuring pride flag designs, another symbol of inclusivity.

    The competition featured intense qualifying matches throughout the weekend to determine the top eight alliance picks. The Bodacious Bulldogs faced challenges but showed its robot’s capabilities, such as scoring well despite a brief controller disconnect costing them a close win.

    Neither the UC-Botics nor the Bodacious Bulldogs advanced to the finals, with the former team’s final ranking landing at 40th place and the latter coming in at 33rd place. The winners of the final matches and other teams that received awards for exemplary program qualities were given the opportunity to advance to the FIRST Championship in Houston, Texas, held Friday, April 19 through Monday, April 22. Robotics teams from around the world compete in the championship.

    For these young engineers, however, it’s only the beginning. Through robotics, they’re gaining skills to change the world – one reprogrammed bot at a time.

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