Building on success

The Brainerd High School Robotics team spends its season designing, building and tweaking the most important member of the team: the robot the team uses in competition.

Brainerd High School Robotics team members Collin French, (left) Jack Worden and Nick Ranweiler work on the team’s robot Tuesday in the robotics lab at Brainerd High School. (Brainerd Dispatch/ Steve Kohls)
Brainerd High School Robotics team members Collin French, (left) Jack Worden and Nick Ranweiler work on the team’s robot Tuesday in the robotics lab at Brainerd High School. (Brainerd Dispatch/ Steve Kohls)

The Brainerd High School Robotics team spends its season designing, building and tweaking the most important member of the team: the robot the team uses in competition.

The team recently competed in a regional competition in Duluth and was able to qualify for the Minnesota State Robotics Tournament, held May 21 in Williams Arena at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.

Tuesday, the team spent one of the days between competitions hosting Forestview Middle School students at an after-school open house in the robotics lab at BHS. Coach Brian Bordwell gave the middle-schoolers a tour of the lab and explained how the team works together to build the robot. Some of the more daring Forestview students even got the chance to take the robot for a test-drive.

The robotics league is a part of FIRST, Bordwell said, which is an international not-for-profit science, technology, engineering and mathematics engagement program, according to its website. FIRST also runs the FIRST Lego League, which Forestview students compete in.

The regional event the BHS Robotics team competed in was March 3-5 at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center in Duluth. Teams from the Northern Lights and Great Lakes regions competed in the event.


The robots compete in a three-on-three game where each robot works to snatch up and launch dodgeballs into a hoop at each end of the 60 foot by 30 foot floor. At the end of each match, the robots can hook onto a bar at the hoop and hoist themselves up, which racks up a lot of points, Bordwell said.

At regionals, there were eight preliminary matches where teams are scored on points scored, wins, losses and ranking points, Bordwell said. The top eight teams after the preliminary rounds are seeded and get to pick their team members for the elimination round, he said.

The BHS Robotics team went 7-1 in the qualifying matches and was seeded fifth in the elimination rounds. They beat the fourth-seeded team but lost to the eventual champions in the semifinals, Bordwell said. The team's semifinal appearance was the farthest the team had advanced in its nine years of existence.

"We lost to the eventual champs, we lost to a very good team," Bordwell said. "We were pretty successful and I was impressed with the durability of the robot."

The team didn't come home empty-handed, however, as they won an Innovation in Accuracy award for their ability to consistently and accurately shoot balls into the goal, Bordwell said. The team's safety captain also won a Safety Captain of the Day award, for the team's exemplary safety record.

The kids have a good time at the competitions and it's good to see them interacting with the other teams and the other kids, Bordwell said.

"It's fun to see them all talking and communicating," Bordwell said.

The BHS robot stood out for its durability, ability to climb and shoot balls accurately and consistently, Bordwell said.


"We were pretty successful and I was impressed with the durability of the robot," Bordwell said. "The competition is rough on the robots and ours held together in all our rounds."

Out of the 63 teams in the regional competition, the BHS Robotics team scored the fifth-most points overall and finished 10th overall. The team didn't advance to the world championships, but because of their rank of 21st out of 208 Minnesota teams, they did qualify for the Minnesota State Robotics Tournament. The top 30 teams advance to the Minnesota State High School League-sanctioned state tournament, Bordwell said.

The state tournament is the same format as the regional competition, but it's held on one day as opposed to the two-day regionals, Bordwell said. Four groups of three teams make the final rounds, he said, so about half of the teams that make it to state advance to the finals. His goal for the big showdown is simple.

"Have the robot running and compete well," Bordwell said. "We've got a good scoring robot that can climb."

There's 3,600 FIRST Robotics teams worldwide, Bordwell said, from China, Brazil, France, Great Britain, Mexico, Israel and more. It's wildly popular in Minnesota, he said, and the state has more Robotics teams than hockey teams.


A long season

The Robotics league season starts in October with fundraising events and weekly meetings to go over ideas, the league manual and more, Bordwell said. The team's budget is $10,000-$12,000 and it costs $5,000 to compete in the regional competition. So, the team is heavily reliant on fundraising, donations and sponsorships, he said.


"We couldn't do this without our sponsors," Bordwell said.

Every team competing in regionals is sent a kit of parts and each team opens their kit at the same time, Bordwell said. There's a kickoff event that's livestreamed worldwide, he said, and the BHS team has hosted a kickoff event a couple times at Central Lakes College's Staples campus.

The kids only have 6 weeks to build their robot, Bordwell said, so build season is hectic, to say the least. The team works from 3:30-6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 9 a.m. to 2 or 3 p.m. on Saturdays.

"On Saturdays, some of the kids show up at 9 a.m. and leave at 9 p.m.," Bordwell said. "Sponsors help out and provide pizza on those days."

On Feb. 21, each team bags up their robot and secures it, Bordwell said, and they can't touch it until regionals. Because of the tight schedule, he said, they have to work on Saturdays, or they wouldn't get the robot built.

There are four Robotics regions in Minnesota, Bordwell said, the most of any state. At 208 teams, Minnesota also has the most Robotics teams in the country. Teams can go to any regional competition they want, as many times as they want, he said, but have to pay $5,000 for each competition.

Between the regional and state competitions, the teams only have 6 hours to work on their robots, Bordwell said, so they need to use their time wisely.

The team builds a new robot every year, Bordwell said, because the requirements change. One of their past robots had to fire frisbees and still sits on a shelf in the robotics lab.


Tuesday's open house was for Forestview students in grades 6-8 in Jim Reed's class. Reed said the middle schoolers are currently learning how to code for the first time, learning how to program Wink robots to move around. Getting to see the robot the high schoolers had built was a great experience for them, he said.

"They love it," Reed said.

It's great for the Robotics team to do outreach like the kind they did on Tuesday, Bordwell said.


Building a team

The 2016 BHS Robotics team has 23 members, five of which are girls, which Bordwell said is more than in the past and a sign of growth. But there's still room for more diversity, as one female team member said when team members were introducing themselves to the Forestview students.

"There should be more girls," she said.

The team is reliant on mentors to provide assistance and more coaching alongside Bordwell. This year's mentors included Mike Ruen, Brad Wadsten, Gary Halverson, Nick Reed, Natalie Berens, Kyle Isom, Mike Thielen and Scott Streed.


"We've got a lot of people helping us out," Bordwell said.

Four past team members have come back and served as mentors, Bordwell said, which is cool to see. Mentors help students experience how engineers solve problems and innovate on the job, he said.

"It's a great connection from high school to the work world," Bordwell said. "Lots of kids have gone on to tech careers."

The Robotics team is an opportunity for students that don't participate in a lot of extra-curricular activities, Bordwell said. They may not be interested in sports, music or theatre, but still want something to do after school. Still, there are some team members who also participate in debate, speech, Knowledge Bowl and more.

"The environment is welcoming," Bordwell said.

When the team first started, it included ninth graders because of a lack of participants, Bordwell said. But now the team has lots of interest, he said, so it's limited to students in grades 10-12.

Students can work in a wide variety of areas on the team, Bordwell said. When the team members introduced themselves Tuesday, they also said what their area of focus was. These included scouting, marketing, mechanics, pneumatics, design, electrical, programming, scouting, safety and media.

"Students designed the team's website, so it's more than just building the robot," Bordwell said.


One team member designed the plans for the hoop and obstacles on the playing field, Bordwell said, so the team could practice with and test their robot in the lab at school.

There's a lot of testing involved in the Robotics team, reflected in the team's motto this year, written in permanent marker on part of the robot.

"Just a prototype," the motto reads.


SPENSER BICKETT may be reached at 218-855-5859 or . Follow on Twitter at .

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