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Willmar robotics team could be headed to state competition

Willmar High School FIRST Robotic team members Bart Kerfeld, from left, Kyle Stulen and Nicholas Hulstrand discuss their experiences at the statewide robotic competition. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR — The FIRST Robotics team from Willmar Senior High is waiting to find out if it will be invited to statewide competition in just its second year of competition.

The Willmar team, No. 4239 WARP SPEED, was in an alliance that fell just short of winning in regional competition last weekend on the University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis.

Scores from the four regional competitions will determine who is invited back to the statewide competition in May. Teams will hear in the next couple weeks if they qualified for the state meet.

Robotics is one of the fastest growing extra-curricular activities in the state, with more teams and larger teams joining the fun each year. The team competed in Mariucci Arena, and as team member Kyle Stulen put it, “The Gophers hockey team plays in a robotics arena now.”

The team’s robot took part in a competition that saw robots climbing towers and shooting flying discs at targets. They were chosen by a top team to be part of a three-team alliance for the finals. Alliances change from one round to the next.

Each year, teams receive a kit of parts and guidelines for that year’s competition. Each team finds its own way to meet the challenges of, say, climbing a tower or throwing a Frisbee.

Teams work on their robots for six weeks and then seal them in plastic until the competition. Willmar’s robot is back in plastic and under lock and key at the Senior High. If the team makes it to state competition, the team can remove the plastic to up to eight hours for improvements or repairs.

The Willmar team is led by teachers David Chambers and Mike Kroeker. It has four volunteer professional mentors: local engineers David Frey, Greg Swenson, Seth Hammer, and Eugene Kerfeld.

Kroeker called the challenge at “multi-task challenge; probably no one can do it all.”

“There’s a lot of strategy; a lot of prioritizing,” Chambers added.

They praised the work of the engineer mentors. “They came with great ideas, and they were excellent at working with the kids,” Kroeker said.

It was good for the students to see how the professionals work, too. “They get to hear the engineers think out loud as they work through the process,” Chambers said.

At competition time, some team members are directly involved in operating the robot during competition, and others spend their time scouting the competition, shooting videos and getting to know people on other teams.

“I think it’s always interesting to see how different teams handle the same challenge,” said Bart Kerfeld, a senior.

“You’re seeing multiple solutions to the same problem,” added junior Joey Lee.

While some of the teams reached similar solutions, all of the robots were a bit different, said Stulen, a junior who was the driver during competition.

Kerfeld likes the competition’s goal of “gracious professionalism.” If one team has a problem with its robot, people from other teams pitch in, offering advice, assistance or even spare parts.

“They want everyone to leave with a working robot,” he said. One of their alliance partners helped the Willmar team members add speed and power to their robot during the competition.

Junior Carlos Moreno said it was interesting to do the scouting, “seeing all the different robots and the advantages and disadvantages.” He said he could tell Willmar’s work was on par with some teams but didn’t yet measure up to others.

New London-Spicer has a FIRST Robotics team, which is also waiting for a possible invitation to the state tournament. It would be the first time the teams have been in the same competition, Kroeker said. NL-S has been involved in competitions longer than Willmar, which just started a year ago.

Seth Kubesh, a sophomore, said being on the team was “an all-around good time, you have fun, build stuff, work with tools, all stuff I like to do.”

Kubesh said he would encourage eighth graders coming to the high school next year to give robotics a try.

Kroeker and Chambers said they are working on recruiting some girls for the team, which had all boys this year.

The team needs $5,000 a year to register and get the kit. Last year, the team had a grant from NASA. This year Jennie-O Turkey Store has agreed to be the team’s major local sponsor, and several other businesses have donated materials, food and cash for shirts and travel expenses.

Nova-Tech and other firms at the MinnWest Technology Campus have also provided technical support.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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