Taking on the Tech Challenge

Area schools design, drive their own robots in competitive event

Lakeview students, including William Basel and Blake Louwagie, made adjustments to their team’s robot in between rounds of competition at the FIRST Tech Challenge on Saturday.

MARSHALL — Part of the gym at Marshall Middle School had been transformed into a workshop. At rows of tables, middle and high school students were unpacking a variety of wires, tools and parts, as they fine-tuned their teams’ robotic creations.

A student from Willmar Middle School headed over to a nearby team’s work area. “Do you guys have a soldering iron, by chance?” he asked.

Engineering and cooperation were both key parts of the FIRST Tech Challenge competition, held in Marshall on Saturday. A total of 16 teams from across southern Minnesota came together to complete timed challenges, using robots students built and programmed themselves.

“It’s been a long journey,” said Lakeview student Gideon Basel. He said he and his teammates started working on their robot back in August. The journey wasn’t over yet for their team, either – after this weekend’s competition, they will be advancing to the state tournament in February.

Saturday was the first time that Marshall has hosted a FIRST Tech Challenge qualifier competition, said Andrea Anderson, student enrichment coordinator with the Southwest West Central Service Cooperative.

“SWWC was looking for ways to support teams down here. A great core of teams are developing here,” said Kris Simonson, a member of High Tech Kids, a Minnesota nonprofit that partners with the national FIRST Tech Challenge program.

Teams competing on Saturday included groups of students from cities like Eagan and Chanhassen, as well as southwestern Minnesota communities. The Willmar, Luverne, Ellsworth and Lakeview school districts all had teams competing.

FIRST Tech Challenge isn’t just about encouraging STEM skills in young people, Simonson said. It’s also about core values like inclusion and teamwork.

“(Students) are competing against each other, but they’re also helping each other do their best,” she said.

Lakeview had three different teams competing, each with a unique robot. The Leftovers, one of the Lakeview teams, built a robot with a distinctive red plastic framework. The frame worked as a safety shield for the robot’s gears, said team member Mike Yanez.

“In the beginning, we had chains instead of gears,” he said. However, the team decided to go with a sturdier design in the end. With the gears, “It’s slower, but it’s stronger,” Yanez said.

“We do everything ourselves,” said Gideon Basel, a member of the Gone Fission team from Lakeview. Different team members worked on different parts of the project, like programming the robot and building parts like grabbing claws and pulleys. “We also 3-D printed things,” Basel said.

During the competition, teams would be randomly paired up in “alliances,” and in each match two alliances would compete to score the most points. Each match included a section where the robots performed pre-programmed actions, and a section where students piloted the robots by remote control.

There were a lot of different ways to score points over the course of a match. Robots could pick up different colored plastic “pixels” and place them on a backdrop. They could also launch paper-airplane “drones” out of the playing field, or grab onto a rigging on the playing field and hang from it.

Simonson said teams were also judged on short presentations talking about their design process and teamwork.

“I am absolutely amazed, every time I see their creativity,” she said of students competing in FIRST Tech Challenge. Teams learn to think outside the box to solve problems, Simonson said.

Basel said the best part of FIRST Tech Challenge was, “Seeing the finished robot, fully functional and doing what you want it to.”

Students also liked the teamwork of FIRST Tech Challenge.

“I like hanging out with friends and building it,” said Lakeview student Jaden Padfield.

“Everything about it is fun for me,” Yanez said.


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