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Willmar students and The Tank impress at state tech tourney

WILLMAR -- The Tank has been a source of frustration and pride for its five builders, a group of aspiring engineers who learned a few lessons the hard way on their way to superior rankings in the state Technology Challenge competition.

The team of Matt Kroneberger, Dane Swartz, Carlos Borges, Marc Zinda and Joel Hedlof started designing their creation in mid-January.

They came up with The Tank, a pint-sized, 80-pound metal monster that moves on tracks over an obstacle course and launches a foam football at a target. The Tank is powered by two 12-volt batteries and is operated by remote control.

Earlier this month they took The Tank to the state competition in Eden Prairie, where they earned a superior rating. One judge rated them the "superior of the superiors," said their teacher Mike Kroeker.

Students were offered free software or Sears gift cards for placing so highly. The Willmar team members chose the gift cards.

It was a long road to the competition.

The five, all in their first year of Tech Challenge, decided almost right away what they wanted to build, but the rest of the project came along more slowly. After a few weeks of design work, Kroeker told them they needed to get moving on the construction.

At one point, they had the machine built and running, only to discover it was too wide, according to the competition criteria. So, they had to take it apart and rebuild it, something that helped them make it even better, they said.

At the competition, it made its way over an obstacle course of PVC piping and 4-by-4 blocks of wood, all attached to sheets of plywood and covered by carpet. At the end of the course, the green and purple football launched toward its target. Students also delivered a presentation to judges to explain the details of their project.

The Tank was a true team effort.

Joel, a 16-year-old sophomore, and Carlos, a 19-year-old senior and an exchange student from Venezuela, did most of the metalwork. Dane, an 18-year-old senior did the electrical work. Marc, an 18-year-old senior, did the drafting.

"I guess I did a little of everything," said Matt, an 18-year-old senior, who moved between the different tasks.

The young men estimated that they spent a combined 550 hours or more designing, building, rebuilding and tinkering with The Tank.

"It was almost like a job," said Matt, but "minus the paycheck." Marc added.

Tech Challenge requires work outside class. Students were able to stay at the school until 5 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays and also worked some Saturdays.

"I think the hardest part was the cannon," Joel said. "The motors are basic," he added, but to get the air-powered cannon to launch the football, they needed to get a good seal on the air valves.

They were able to use a valve from Ridgewater College, which often gives a helping hand to Tech Challenge students. They received donations to pay for some of the parts, and "everything else we found laying around," Marc said.

A storage room behind Kroeker's classroom is lined with shelves full of all sorts of parts from past projects. Each year, teams build their projects from scratch, scavenging what they can and seeking donations to buy new ones when needed.

The team said they used knowledge from lots of other classes in developing their project -- physics, electronics, welding, robotics, communications.

Kroeker said he never had the chance to take on projects like this when he was high school, and he enjoys working with the students on their projects.

Tech Challenge is the culmination of what students have learned in many other classes, he said. Students need to know their math and science, and they need to know how to use tools.

The students have parameters to follow in building their projects, and "they break the task down into individual problems," Kroeker said. "They break it down into the skills the team members have."

Team members also learn how to communicate with each other to keep a project moving, he said.

Each person on a team keeps an engineering notebook documenting the work they did, Kroeker said. Since so many students are interested in engineering fields, they will use those skills later on, he added.

Willmar has signed on to a new engineering curriculum called Project Lead the Way, which offers classes that are recognized by colleges and offers students a chance to earn college credits. The tech challenge class will continue in much the same format, but it will eventually have a new name -- Engineering Design.