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Willmar, Minn., FIRST Robotics team builds basket-shooting robot

Cooper Ochsendorf,15, makes an adjustment to the Willmar FIRST Robotics team's basketball playing robot. The team competed this year for the first time in FIRST robotics, a 23-year-old program created by inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen to inspire young people's interest and participation in science and technology. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

For six weeks, the 15 members of the Willmar FIRST Robotics team used a box of parts and a challenge to develop a robot that can play basketball.

Their robot can maneuver over mini basketballs, pick them up and line up for a shot before launching the balls at a basket. Not bad for a bunch of rookies.

All those maneuvers were needed when robots from around the state competed in the Rebound Rumble three-on-three basketball games in the state competition this spring.

This was Willmar's first year in FIRST robotics. The acronym means For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. It was started in 1989 by inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen to inspire young people's interest and participation in science and technology.

Willmar Senior High students have participated in other engineering-related activities in the past but just started in FIRST Robotics this year, using a NASA grant available to first-year teams.

Advisers Dave Chambers and Mike Kroeker said they recruited 15 students from the school's four grades to start the program this year and hope to get more interested next year.

They all had a lot to learn in building this first robot, the teachers said. The team worked after school and on Saturdays to get the job done.

Kroeker said he's often heard that "the team gets together to build a robot, but the robot builds the team."

Different students had specialties in working on the robot.

Sophomore Kyle Stulen, with his experience with a child's version of Lego robot software, was the lead programmer. He said he wants to be an engineer and is thinking of majoring in computer engineering in college.

Senior Jaikob Isle was the electrical engineer and team captain. He handled "a lot of the wiring," he said.

Isle said they didn't do too badly at the competition for their first year. Often graduating team members in the program will come back and assist the next team as mentors. "That's what I plan to do," Isle said.

"What they learn in class helps them here," Chambers said. Students involved in the program use so many different skills, he added. He was pleased to see Willmar add the program, as his son and daughter have been involved in it at New London-Spicer.

Working on the team can lead students toward careers as engineers or as technicians who work with engineers, Kroeker said, and it's an advantage for them to get to know their engineer mentors through the program.

They have a lot of fun. Even after the competition was over, the team had fun gathering after school one day to put the robot through its paces.

There's more to the team effort than building a robot, Kroeker said. Teams raise funds to buy parts and seek mentors from the community. Several engineers from Nova-Tech mentored the team, as well as David Frey, an engineer from Willmar. Donations of materials and cash from area businesses helped them finish the robot.

Frey worked with FIRST Robotics Team 135 about 15 years ago. Teams are numbered sequentially so Willmar's team 4239 indicates the growth of the program.

"It's expanded by leaps and bounds" in a relatively short time, Chambers said. Willmar went to the Minnesota state competition, which took place in Mariucci and Williams arenas at the University of Minnesota Minneapolis campus. Each site hosted 63 teams. Minnesota's is the third-largest program in the country.

Students on the Willmar team said they agreed to sign on because it sounded interesting. It helped that more than $14 million in scholarships are awarded to FIRST students each year.

Robots in the competition needed to be able to navigate a barrier in the middle of the court, shoot baskets. Teams formed alliances to play the basketball games. In one round, the rookies from Willmar were part of the highest-scoring alliance in one round.

Chambers said more experienced teams built their robots focusing on certain aspects of the challenge, like defense or shooting. "Us being rookies, we wanted to do it all," he said.

The Willmar team ran into some difficulties with technique and time management, but other teams offered lots of useful advice.

Experienced teams are expected to mentor new teams, Kroeker said. It's been part of the program for years.

The team next year will be able to practice driving the old robot right away, Kroeker said. This year, they had to wait until they had it built to learn to drive.

In an email interview, Frey praised the Willmar team's effort: "I consider it an honor to be involved in the startup of the Willmar robotics team, and they should all be proud of the fact they were able to comprehend the complex rules for the game, come up with a concept, develop prototypes and build a robot capable of competing against seasoned teams with many years of experience. This is a lot to pull off, considering this team has a lot of younger students who have never been involved in anything like this before."

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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