For six weeks nearly a dozen students and a half-dozen more mentors dedicated many of their spare hours to designing a robot that could climb a 30-foot pyramid made out of tripod-like poles. It may sound rather simple at first blush, but it’s a feat that few other FIRST Robotics teams have accomplished, according to theChamplin Park High School’s Robots Uniting Students Together (RUST) Robotics Team Adviser Mike Hilber. It is also a big reason the team is one of the top 30 teams heading to the state Robotics competition in May.
“Only about one in four can climb to the top and that’s wh
ere we get most of our points,” said Hilber. The team’s 30-foot climb garners 30 points in this year’s FIRST Robotics challenge called, “Ultimate Ascent” which is similar in theme to disc golf.
The hours he invests in robotics is also about so much more than just the task at hand for senior Logan Ogelsby, the team’s captain.
“My favorite thing about competing on the team is working with smart people to come up with a solution to some ridiculous challenge, and then to be able to prove that it works in competition,” Ogelsby said.
Each year competition organizers come up with a new
game, or goal, for the robots to achieve. Teams receive a basic robot kit and are tasked with designing that kit into a functioning robot while only adding competition-approved parts. They are only given six weeks to work on the project before competition begins.
“Many people struggle when it comes to understanding the game from year to year,” said Ogelsby. “The people at FIRST invent an entirely new
game for us to compete in every year, so some people get confused when the program is so much more complex than having your robots destroy each other.”
This year’s game, “Ultimate Ascent,” is played on a 27×54 field. Teams are split into alliances so they are competing together with other schools. Alliances earn points based on the robot capabilities of the teams that comprise that alliance.
These alliances change throughout a tournament as teams participate in up to eight matches. To determine points, two pyramids are placed in the center of each half of the field with five scoring stations located on the opposite end of the field from the alliance station where that team’s drivers are. The game challenges robot makers to design a robot that can toss Frisbees into the scoring stations. Additional points can be earned by climbing the opposing teams’ pyramid base. Each match lasts two minutes and 15 seconds. The first 15 seconds are an autonomous period where the robots follow a set of pre-programmed instructions. For the final two minutes, team members called drivers control the robots remotely.
According to Hilber, Champlin Park’s team decided to forgo the frisbee tossing ability and just focus on their robot’s climbing ability. Their decision seems to be paying off as they walked away with a 6-2 match record at the Minnesota First North Star Regional Competition held at the end of March where they won the first quarter final round and lost the second. Based on MSHSL point rankings, they have earned a 23rd place ranking heading into the state competition coming up at Williams Arena May 18.
The MSHSL first sanctioned robotics as a sport with a state competition last year. This will be Champlin Park’s first visit to the state tournament.
Housed in the space dedicated for Anoka-Hennepin School District’s Secondary Technical Education Program (STEP) on the campus of Anoka Technical College, Hilber calls the team’s building and workshop space a luxury.
The team also enjoys the expertise of a half-dozen mentors who are professional engineers — from electrictrical engineers to project engineers — and $10,000 in funding from their sponsors, Caterpillar and Boeing.
“We couldn’t do it without them. We are blessed with the fact the college lets us use their space,” said Hilber. “To be able to get things in house and work on things and have a full machine shop, my students can learn to run a mill and lathe. I don’t know how others do it without the equipment.”
Hilber says during the six weeks there are many late nights. The mentors often don’t arrive until about 6 p.m. because they are coming from their regular jobs. They often stay until the college closes for the evenings around 10 p.m. They also spend time working on the robot on the weekends during the six week building phase.
“This year we were literally putting the final touches on things at the very last minute before we had to bag up the robot,” said Hilber.
Robotics is relatively new to Minnesota but its explosive growth has made the state a contender for attention with its regionals being some of the largest in the country. In 2006, only two robotics teams existed in Minnesota. In 2007, Champlin Park started their team as did about a dozen other schools. Today, there are 180 robotics teams in the state.
Although this is only his second year competing in Robotics, Ogelsby has been greatly impacted by his experience.
“FIRST Robotics has been the most rewarding activity I’ve taken part of in all of high school,” he said. “Even though it’s all a game — the varsity sport of the mind as they call it — one can’t help but get the feeling of ‘this is real.’”
Ogelsby has developed an interesting perspective based on his experience with the RUST Robotics team.
“So many of the things we do in high school are just a charade to get colleges to like us; when the grade and the test score are the driving incentive, students will only do what they must to get the grades and the test scores, rather than learn for the sake of learning or improvement. All too often, the result is a bunch of cynical teenagers begrudgingly pushing their way through the system because they know of no viable alternatives,” he said. “In FIRST Robotics, everything you do is for a reason, and everything you learn is going to directly benefit you. In the long run, it’s obvious that the people at FIRST and the mentors on every team do what they do not to get funding for themselves or prove themselves as a credible investment to others. They do it because they know how much potential the students have and they want to show those kids that they can use that potential to accomplish amazing things — and have fun doing it.”
Hilber would like to grow participation in the program in the years to come.
“I think the hard thing now is all these students think you have to be an ‘A’ student in math and science and have all this skill to do these things,” he said. “But the reality is, if you can play games, we can show you how to do the math and programming and building.”
He said there are some team members who really prefer one aspect of the process and they try to let them run with it.
There are numerous areas to get involved in including basic electricity, using shop tools, building, computer programming and driving the robot. One of the great things for Hilber is seeing the students and mentors working together as a team. He also encourages female students to consider robotics and to a larger extent in life, engineering. This year’s robotics team has 5 female student members, nearly half the team.
“This is a wonderful after school event for kids of all types,” said Hilber. “Students, and girls particularly, see that it’s not a dirty job. It’s smart, clean, resourceful and they learn they can do things there they didn’t realize they could do.”
Nicole Olsen, a senior at Champlin Park said she joined the team after she heard about it through fellow robotics team members Ogelsby and Annis Nusseibeh.
“I heard that it was a lot of fun, and very hands on, which has to be my favorite part,” said Olsen. “It is so exciting being able to create a part that actually goes on to the robot.”
Olsen said it was a challenge learning how to work every machine and having to decide on one single thing to focus on such as programming versus building one specific part or another. Much of the challenge for her was the learning curve she experienced with it being her first year on the team.
“Not knowing a lot about robotics hindered my ability to help as much as I could have. But it was an experience I would not give up for the world,” she said. “I only wish I had found it sooner.”
Olsen also addressed the stereotypes that are often associated with robotics.
“Many people probably consider Robotics to be ‘lame’ or ‘nerdy’, but it really isn’t that way at all, at least not with our team,” she said. “For us, it is about a group of students who are interested in learning how to create a fully-functioning robot, and work for weeks and hours towards that ultimate goal without complaining; it doesn’t matter how intelligent or popular a student is, everyone has equal opportunity to help and build and create.”
Contact Mindy Mateuszczyk at [email protected]