NLS rookie robotics team on the rise
The students in Andy Paulson's high school robotics class readily acknowledge their creation is more function than form, but their affection for their 2-by-2-foot, 24-pound handmade robot named The Minotaur is pure.
After all, the simple wooden structure with a complex "brain" repeatedly excels in accomplishing its mission without breakdowns. The robust robot has won the New London-Spicer students a first-place trophy in a competition in October.
There, they faced high school teams from North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Canada.
During that same BEST competition, which stands for Boosting Engineering, Science and Technology, the team earned the "best rookie" award.
On Thursday, the students and The Minotaur travel to Arkansas. There they will compete this weekend in the regional BEST competition that includes schools from one-third of the country.
A top place could land the team in Dallas, Texas, for the national contest this spring.
Not bad for robotics club that got its start just last year, when it received a $5,000 grant from NASA to build a robot to compete in a different contest called FIRST -- For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. They won rookie inspiration of the year in that contest last year.
The school's quick success with competitions aimed at grooming the next generation of engineers prompted NLS to offer an extra-curricular class in robotics this year.
Paulson, who is the industrial technology instructor at NLS, agreed to take on the challenge.
Since school started this fall, Paulson has led the class of about 20 students in the task of preparing for the BEST competition, which included using a box full of random parts provided by the contest organizers to make a robot that met strict guidelines and could follow the rules of this year's game that mimics a real-life production line.
The students have spent three to six hours every day every week since September working on the project in class and after class.
Because the NLS students focused on their strengths and went for simplicity and function, they had a lot of leftover items in the box of gadgets, Paulson said.
What they created was a clever little robot that does exactly what it's supposed to do -- move products from one place to another.
Once the technology of the robot was completed, the students put themselves and the robot through the paces of the game course that is the focus of the competition -- over and over and over.
There are two game options -- one involves moving eggs and the other involves golf balls. Even though the egg option has a high score potential, it also has a high risk factor and the NLS students opted for the golf ball course after crunching the numbers to determine their rate of success.
Each match involves a student who drives the robot by operating a remote-control device and a student who loads golf balls into a tube and then sorts out the "bad" balls that the robot delivers.
The game involves a scoring system that rewards teams for moving a large number of balls and penalizes them for putting a defective ball in the wrong container or if the robot fails to deliver the box by the end of the round.
The NLS students have every move choreographed to the exact second and have executed the routine at least 900 times, Paulson said.
If they are able to replicate their practice performances at the competition, the students say they are confident they will score high.
The goal of the competition is to outscore other high school teams who were given the same box of gadgets to build a robot to compete in the game.
The contest includes points for other aspects of the project as well, such as an interview, presentation and promotion of the project, and an educational display table that lays out the math, statistics, brainstorming and design plans the students used to build their robot.
Points are also given for the beauty of the robot.
NLS students know some teams will have flashy robots that will score high in glam, but they said The Minotaur is a rock when it comes to performance.
While the students worked through every step of the project themselves, they received guidance from mentors Landon Fries and James Kleven who are engineers at Nova Tech, and financial support from local businesses, such as Jennie-O Turkey Store, MinnWest Technology, ENGrafted and Willmar Forklift.
They're still $3,500 short of the $7,500 they need to cover expenses and are doing some last-minute fundraising.
Even if the team doesn't advance to the next level in the BEST contest, the NLS team will begin work in January on the FIRST robotics contest. They were informed last week that they received another $5,000 NASA grant and a $2,000 J.C. Penney grant to help fund that project.
Paulson said the goal of getting more kids into engineering through the robotics program has already been successful at NLS. Five seniors who were members of last year's robotics team are now pursuing a degree in engineering.