Robotics program teaches engineering skills at St. Francis: 2 teams headed to world championship
Robot fever is taking over St. Francis of the Lakes Catholic School in Brainerd. Gathered in a classroom full of gizmos and gadgets after school Friday, Feb. 15, about 20 energized students took turns driving robots around and working out kinks i...
Robot fever is taking over St. Francis of the Lakes Catholic School in Brainerd.
Gathered in a classroom full of gizmos and gadgets after school Friday, Feb. 15, about 20 energized students took turns driving robots around and working out kinks in their homemade machines.
The idea for a robotics program came from parent Gina Walker, who had a friend with a son in robotics elsewhere and knew she wanted to find something similar for her daughter.
"I just thought this program is awesome, so I pushed and I pushed, and I got it in," she said during Friday's practice session.
After doing extensive research, Walker got the program started last year at St. Francis. Now in its second year, the robotics team consists of 16 students in fourth through eighth grades who participate in tournaments. An additional seven students in third through seventh grades make up the school's apprentice league, meaning they are first-year members learning the ropes before venturing into competition next year.
The kids on the competition team either learned the basics in the program last year or enrolled in a camp Walker offered during the summer to catch them up to speed.
Walker acts as the lead organizer, while parents Pat Marcussen and Becky Thuringer, and teachers Jessica Hanson and Michelle Johnson act as coaches for each of the four teams.
Communication, engineering, programming, problem-solving and creativity are a few of the skills the coaches enjoy helping their students learn through robotics.
"There's a role for everyone," Walker said, noting not all kids need to be good at the technical aspects. "Some kids are really good drivers. Some kids are really good programmers. Some kids are really good builders. ... You don't have to be technical to be needed, because if you had five technical kids on a team, you would be missing elements of the creativity."
The four members of each team created their own robot at the beginning of the year and then worked on perfecting their designs and skills as the season went on.
At tournaments, the students worked together with teams from other schools, using their robots to score as many points as possible in different games. While the different teams are ultimately competing against each other for the most points after several rounds, they need to work together as well, as they each receive the same number of points in the rounds they're paired up for.
"The better you work together as a team, as a pairing and an alliance, the better your score is going to be," Walker said, noting the students improved after every competition this year. "They came back from the tournament, and they modified."
Hanson said she enjoyed seeing her team learning to work under pressure this year when they had a mishap at the state tournament.
"Our robot fell on the ground and broke into pieces," she said. "And all four (team members) just kept a level head and descended on it and put it back together about three matches before we were up next, which is a total of three minutes."
The whole atmosphere at robotics tournaments is positive for the kids, Hanson added.
"It's competitive," she said, "but they don't overlook the fact that these are other humans who want to learn, and you can share your knowledge and grow."
The teams each have four tournaments under their belts this year, and two of them are gearing up for the VEX Robotics World Championships in April in Louisville, Ky.
After the state tournament earlier in February, three of the St. Francis teams-one middle school and two elementary-qualified for the world championships.
"It was a great day," Walker said.
But because of a conflict with an eighth grade trip to Washington, D.C., only the elementary teams will represent the school at worlds, where they will compete against hundreds of international teams.
While the tournament trophies look pretty good in the school's display case, winning isn't the most important thing for Walker.
"Other coaches have come up to us and said our kids are just really nice to work with," she said. "And, I mean, I love trophies, but I think that's one of the highlights of the year."
Teamwork and technical skills aside, the students seem to enjoy robotics because it's something new, something they've never done before.
"My brother was in it last year, and he was on one of the teams that made it worlds," sixth-grader Adam Lokken said. "So it just got me excited, and I wanted to try it."
Lokken and two of his sixth-grade teammates, Genevieve Birkeland and Henry Hartwig, learned valuable lessons in robot construction this year, admitting they didn't build a very good robot to start out with, which set them back during competitions.
"Next year we'll try to build the best robot at first," Birkeland said, adding she hopes they can use their experience to improve enough for a trip to worlds.
"It's still hard," Birkeland added," but it's not so hard that it's super frustrating and you're always mad and it's always going wrong. It's fun."
Earlier in the year, the kids toured Pequot Tool and Manufacturing in Jenkins to see much bigger robots at work.
"That was a fun experience," Lokken said. "We got to see machines that shot lasers and cut metal."
And on a more serious note, Johnson enjoyed the tour because it showed the students they could have careers involving robotics in the future.
"It was awesome for the kids to see, this isn't just a game, that these robots actually do work, and you can earn a living at doing this down the road," she said.
But even if robotics isn't what they want to do down the road, the skills learned won't be wasted.
"It might just be good to put on my resume," eighth-grader Carly Boggs said of her newfound programming skills after joining robotics.
"What I like about it, too," Walker said, "is my daughter probably won't end up being an engineer or a programmer, but she's now comfortable with it, at least, so it's not going to be intimidating."
Walker hopes to help bring that mindset to other schools throughout the area, too.
"I would help in any way I can getting other teams started," she said. "Because right now we travel to St. Cloud every tournament, which isn't a big deal-it's only an hour, but it's growing, and I'd like to see it grow here."
A few other school districts in the area have some sort of robotics team or club, including Brainerd, Pine River-Backus, Pequot Lakes, Crosby-Ironton, Staples-Motley and Pierz, but Walker wants to see it grow even further to point when local competitions and weekly leagues would be a possibility.
And even if not every student comes out of it as an engineer, they will have likely learned something along the way.
"If anything," Walker joked, "they know what a gear ratio is."
The St. Francis robotics team is sponsored by Pequot Tool, Precision Tool Technologies, MaxBotix and Clow Stamping Co.
For more photos, go to https://bit.ly/2SYRLYD .