St. Michael-Albertville students are new to the world of FIRST Robotics, yet it has been an impressive first season for this new team- and it’s not over yet.
On March 10 the team, called Binary Battalion, won the Rookie All-Star Award at the Lake Superior Regional competition in Duluth. This secured them an invitation to the Worlds competition in Detroit, Michigan, coming up April 25-28. More than 450 teams from around the world will be in attendance.
What is FIRST Robotics?
FIRST Robotics is a non-profit organization that stands for “For Inspiration of Science and Technology,” and it seeks to encourage students to pursue education and careers in STEM-related fields and to become leaders and innovators.
A local mother and son, Michelle and Luke O’Leary, were taking part in a programming club called CoderDojo last year when they heard of the FIRST Robotics program. It wasn’t offered at STMA High School, so Michelle called around to neighboring schools to find a team for her son to join. While the teams all offered to let Luke join them, they encouraged the mother/son duo to start a team in STMA with their guidance. O’Leary got some initial sponsorships from local businesses Marksman Metals and Pelco Machining and took the idea to STMA Community Education, which added a FIRST Robotics team to their offerings for this school year. The team consists of 36 students, two coaches and 11 mentors.
“Gracious Professionalism” from Surrounding Schools
The FIRST Robotics program operates under a methodology of “gracious professionalism,” where all teams help one another despite being competitors. The team’s coaches and mentors said STMA could not have done all they did this year without the ample assistance they received from surrounding schools’ robotics teams.
“The idea is to help everybody out as much as possible,” said coach Roger Bovee.
Buffalo High School’s team lent their robot to STMA to hold demonstrations during lunch periods and gauge student interest. Becker’s team gave them a robot to tear apart and learn from, and Elk River’s team lent them their robot to use in an informal competition that mentor Travis Weber said gave the team valuable experience in the lead-up to competing with their own robot.
“It’s such a network of support that you get in this program,” Michelle O’Leary said. “It’s really unique. We’re competing against each other but also mentoring each other and helping others get better.”
What does the Robotics Team Do?
STMA’s team spent the first few months of the school year tearing apart Becker’s robot, learning everything they could about robot construction and programming and managing other team logistics. Building began in earnest in early January, and the team worked six days a week for six weeks to build and program their 115-pound robot.
At the Regionals competition, 62 teams competed in a complex game that involves three teams competing against three other teams. The robots must pick up “power cubes” (milk crates) and put them into boxes as quickly as possible. The competition also involves a period of time where the robot must be in autonomous mode and try to score on its own, which is achieved through programming. STMA junior Isaac Hanson is this year’s leader in making that happen, and Bovee said he is a self-taught programmer.
In addition to building the robot and competing, the team also must work on marketing, merchandising and community service. The club’s marketing team has secured sponsors ranging from local places like UMC, the Rotary and Legion Clubs up to organizations such as NASA, Philips, Polaris and Accenture.
“We’ve really had a lot of support from the community,” mentor Christina Van Vooren said. “There’s really not a whole lot like this for kids. They call it the varsity sport for the mind.”
The team’s lone senior, Kevin Erickson, said he was curious to try the robotics club to see what it was all about and what the team might be able to do.
“I wanted to get out of my usual routes and try something different,” he said. “It’s been a fun experience for all of us.”
Expansion of the Program Coming Soon
The organizers of the high school team are wasting no time expanding the FIRST Robotics opportunities for younger students in STMA. O’Leary said they will have FIRST Tech Challenge teams at both middle schools up and running for next school year, which is the middle level’s version of the FIRST Robotics program.
O’Leary said their goal is to make FIRST programs available for STMA students of all ages over the next few years.