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Grants from business keep Willmar High's robotics team on track

Freshman robotics team member Darren Seubert works Dec. 19 at Willmar Senior High School with a robot the robotics team built last year. On Jan. 7, the team will find out the latest FIRST competition challenge and have six weeks to build it. Briana Sanchez / Tribune1 / 3
John Wilson goes over how to use a plasma cutter in a Dec. 19 presentation to robotics team students at Willmar Senior High School. The plasma cutter works with a CNC, computer numeric control, to cut letters and shapes from metal. Wilson showed the students examples of how small they could cut shapes into metal. Briana Sanchez / Tribune2 / 3
Junior Ethan Bos, left, watches Dec. 19 as the plasma cutter makes a shape from metal at Willmar Senior High School. John Wilson, center, spoke to the robotics team members about how the plasma cutter works with a CNC, computer numeric control, to cut letters and shapes out of metal. The robotics team was learning to use the machine to make pieces for robots. Briana Sanchez / Tribune3 / 3

WILLMAR — After Jan. 7, the six-week frenzy will begin for the Willmar FIRST Robotics team.

The team of more than 20 Willmar Senior High School students, along with 3,200 other FIRST teams, will receive the assignment for their competition robot. The teams will also receive a kit of parts they can use to build their robots.

Teams will have six weeks to design, build and test the robot before they take it to competition — a chance to handle real-world engineering problems.

Willmar's team is named W.A.R.P.S.P.E.E.D., which stands for Willmar Area Robotics - Programming Simulations Pneumatics Electronics Engineering and Design.

The robotics team, four girls and 18 boys, has been meeting one time a week since fall, but the pace will pick up in January. The group will go from meeting once a week to practically every day.

Building robots and entering competitions isn't cheap, and the team relies on the local business community for all kinds of help.

The group recently received two major grants — $5,000 from Monsanto and $5,000 from Jennie-O Turkey Store. Those will cover entry fees for FIRST Robotics and to the two competitions they will be attending. The students still need about $6,000 for materials and expenses.

People in the area business community will send employees to offer technical advice on coding, engineering, design, welding, drilling and machining, said teacher/coach Mike Kroeker. "We're open to anybody that's interested in helping."

Kroeker said the robotics team shows members the practical application of things they have learned in math and science classes.

"The goal is to make it exciting like a sporting event and to get kids excited about engineering, technology and math," he said. "The kids are learning skills that might translate to their jobs someday."

In previous years, the team's robots have thrown frisbees, tossed balls or traversed obstacles courses.

Until the online video announcement Jan. 7, the team won't have any idea what tasks the 2017 robots will have to master. FIRST Robotics has provided a couple clues in a preliminary video — the project will be called Steamworks, and participants should "prepare to take flight."

Last week, some students were learning new techniques in the welding shop while others were writing letters to potential supporters. Lead programmer Joseph Fernandez was updating and expanding the team's list of business contacts.

After Jan. 7 the team will come to Kroeker's classroom and the school industrial technology area after school every day and stay there for several hours. They will work on Saturdays, too, putting in 12 to 20 hours a week, even more as the deadline nears.

Kroeker said the coaches put in many hours outside the classroom during that six weeks, too, and they do get worn out by the end.

"Then you go to an event, and you forget all about the hard work and say, 'This is amazing; we gotta do this again,'" he said.

Team captains Francis Winter, a senior, and Anna Peterson, a junior, were working on a preliminary design for the team's drive station last week. The station will be used to drive the robot and its design can be a type of signature for a team.

The captains have each been in the program for three years. They referred to themselves as coordinators for the team, working with leaders of a variety of subgroups to stay on their path. Some students work on technical aspects of the project, while others work on building the robot's physical structure.

"We make sure we're all working on the same page," Winter said. "Everybody's here because they want to be," so motivation isn't an issue for team members.

"Everybody here has their own talent," Peterson said. "I would not be able to do some of the things other kids do."

Winter said he likes the design process. Peterson said she likes working with other people on design problems or errors.

Anyone who would like to contribute to the team may write to the attention of Mike Kroeker, Willmar Senior High School, 2701 30th St. N.E., Willmar, MN 56201.

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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