The year of the robotHigh school league sanctioning means area high school robotics teams will have first-ever state tournament this winter.
By: Patrick Johnson, Sports Editor, Woodbury Bulletin
This could be the year of the robot.
This past summer robotics became a Minnesota State High School League sponsored activity – like football, basketball, hockey and track and field. Recognizing the importance of science and math extracurricular activities, the league voted to partner with FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) in supporting robotics competitions.
The major difference this year, because of the high school league’s involvement, will be the implementation of a robotics state tournament – the first of which will take place on May 19 at Williams Arena on the University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis.
“We’re hoping to do it up and make it a big deal,” Program Specialist Amy Doherty said. “We’re really excited. Our mission is to provide competitions for academics, athletics and arts. We didn’t really have a lot representing academics. This helps us expand in that direction.”
Four area schools – East Ridge, Park, Math and Science Academy and Woodbury – all have robotics teams that will compete in the MSHSL and FIRST competitions this year. Some of the teams’ names are: the Woodbury Robo-sapians, the East Ridge Robotic Ominous Raptors (ERRORs) and the Math and Science Academy Fighting Calculators.
Math and Science Academy adult mentor Tom Crump said he, and his team, are excited about the new state tournament.
“It is very cool, because the kids spend a lot of time building the robot and unless you’re going on to nationals you may only have one or two official competitions during a year,” Crump said. “You spend the months preparing and months building and the season is over in three days. The more competition opportunities the kids can get is a great thing.”
Crump said roughly 30 kids are on the MSA robotics team this year. The team members gather seven days a week during the season to work on their robot. Not all team members attend each session, however, Crump said.
Like in sports, robotics team members learn skills like teamwork, competition and how to handle adversity. However, they also learn additional skills they can take beyond high school. Unlike in sports 100 percent of the robotics participants have a good chance to “turn pro.”
Crump said one of MSA’s former team members, Kevin O’Connor, is now part of the FIRST staff. Also, Crump’s daughter Allison Crump graduated from MSA and is studying engineering in college now.
Oskar Cymerman, Woodbury’s lead advisor and a science teacher Woodbury, said he believes the camaraderie the students learn, not only within their teams, but between the competing teams is special.
“The term that was coined by FIRST is coopertition. You want to your robot to do as best as possible, but at the same time, if you see other teams that need help you do it. The main thing is to see everyone do well. It teaches students that winning isn’t everything. Competition is so ingrained in society, we’re trying to teach the values of helping each other. Maybe it will be a better world if people cooperated more.”
Cymerman has been part of the robotics program since it began three years ago. Woodbury has roughly 20 team members this year.
Crump said FIRST strongly stresses cooperation among the teams. But, also he said they have a healthy competition, too.
“FIRST calls it gracious professionalism, which can be defined as helping each other out and then competing like crazy against each other,” Crump said. “It’s not just an empty motto, it’s really put into action.”
In addition to the state tournament, it is believed by most the MSHSL affiliation elevates the perceived status and visibility of robotics as an activity.
“It’s unfortunate that’s the case, but it is,” Doherty said. “A lot of schools won’t add an activity unless it’s a high school league activity or pay their advisors or let their kids letter until it’s a high school league activity. I don’t necessarily think that’s right, but it does add a little legitimacy and cohesiveness.”
The MSHSL’s robotics partner – FIRST – was founded by Segway inventor Dean Kamen in 1989 to inspire America’s young people to pursue future careers in science and technology by creating the same levels of fun, recognition, and celebration that students experience from participating on major high school athletic teams. The FIRST Robotics Competition has 2,072 teams nationwide and completed its 20th season in 2011. Minnesota’s FIRST Robotics Competition grew from two to 131 teams during the past five years. This winter, over 150 schools will have robotics teams, according to Doherty.
“It was growing rapidly before we came along,” Doherty said. “I’d love to say 20 teams were added because of us, but I’m not sure that’s the case.”
In robotics, teams use a standard parts kit a common set of rules to build functioning robots over a six-week period in order to complete specific tasks deemed by FIRST. The teams are led by team leaders and advisors from each school as well as adult mentors, who are generally professionals in science-related fields.
After the robots are complete, the teams and robots perform in a series of competitions. The big competitions statewide are the three regional contests, where all the teams will battle to qualify for the national competition and the new MSHSL state meet. Twenty four teams will earn the right to compete in the MSHSL state meet each year. Anywhere from 1 to 10 teams have qualified for nationals every year in past years.
“Essentially the season is the same, we’re just extending the post-season opportunities for 24 teams with the addition of the state tournament. The challenge is still put on by FIRST Robotics, the kit is the same and the regional competition is the same,” Doherty said. “We’re really just adding to what they already had. We’re doing the state competition after the national competition. We didn’t want any robots to qualify for nationals then have their robots break at the state competition.”
Minnesota has the fourth-largest state contingent of robotics teams in the nation and hosts the largest of the more than 50 FIRST Robotics Competition regional events. The regional events at Williams and Mariucci arenas host a combined total of 123 teams.
“It’s really exciting,” Cymerman said. “Right now, we’re in the preseason. We’re trying to get ready for the competition season by building things in advance and teaching skills like electronics, programming and using mechanical tools and power tools to get them ready for the season.”
Although teams have been fundraising and team leaders and mentors have been teaching the team members various concepts and skills related to building a working robot, the robotics season will begin in earnest on Jan. 7, when FIRST presents the tasks the teams’ robots will have to complete this year in a world-wide kickoff. Many students from around the state are invited to the University of Minnesota for FIRSTs demonstration of this year’s game and it is also available to see via webcast.
“That’s when they will see the challenge for the first time,” Crump said. “It’s gotten to be a really big deal.”
In last year’s game, LOGOMOTION, the goal was have the robot carry triangular, circular and square tubes across the open field and place them on a rack to make FIRST logos. At the end of the match, teams also deployed minibots to race up poles for bonus points.
Cymerman said his team is excited to learn what FIRST will challenge them with this year.
“This is for all the marbles and the game is always the most exciting part to see,” Cymerman said. “There’s always electricity at the kick off when you see the animation of the game. The kids get really excited for that and start brainstorming right away. It’s fun to be part of it.”