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Robotics team wins third trip to national competition

Anna Sawyer, 17, welds the frame for Fierrbox, the robot designed and built by students on the East Ridge High School Robotics Team. They won the Northern Lights Regional Championship in Duluth. Their victory earned them their third consecutive trip the Robotics Competition World Championships in St. Louis Missouri April 27-29. Anna’s twin sister Kate is co-captain of the team. (Submitted photo)1 / 3
Freshman Anya Mazar, sophomore Iaong Lor and junior Kate Sawyer (from left) build a robot at East Ridge High School. The three are members of the the East Ridge Robotic Ominous Raptors (ERRORs) who recently won the Northern Lights Regional Championship in Duluth. (Submitted photo) 2 / 3
East Ridge High School seniors Angelina Kyrasa (left) and sophomore Kennedy Uzpen work to machine a part for Fierrbox, the robot they would help design and build as part of the East Ridge Robotic Ominous Raptors, or ERRORs. (Submitted photo) 3 / 3

East Ridge High School

East Ridge High School students cheered and stamped their feet as the only nonhuman member of their team raced around the floor of the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.

When time ran out, their comrade and creation — a robot name Fierrbox — had helped propel the East Ridge High School Robotics Team 3130 to victory in the recent Northern Lights Regional Championship.

They won as part of an alliance with Team 2509 from Hutchinson and Team 6613 from Hurley, Wis.

"It was just a really interesting experience and exhilarating," said sophomore Iaong Lor, 16, a member of the build team who held construct Fierrbox. "I could see the team succeed as a whole. I'm really proud."

Their win earned them their third consecutive trip to the Robotics Competition World Championships, set for April 27-29 in St. Louis. They will also compete in the Minnesota State Championship.

East Ridge junior Kate Sawyer is co-captain of the team, called the ERRORs (for East Ridge Robotic Ominous Raptors). Their 76 members include her twin sister Anna, who is taking a welding class at East Ridge and used her skills to assemble the robot's frame.

"It's a lot more than just building the robot," Sawyer said. "We have a lot of different sub-teams. We have the ones building the robot and programming it. We do a lot of outreach events. We also have an imaging team and a media team who manage our website."

The teams have only six weeks to design and build their robot. None of the parts can cost more than $400, according to contest rules.

"We probably had the frame done four weeks into build season," Sawyer said. "Most of build season is brainstorming and prototyping different ideas. It's only the last week and a half that you get a final, completed robot. Then we give it to software (sub-team) and ask them to write code in an hour and a half and they don't like us very much."

"By Feb. 21 we had to have a complete robot bagged up and ready for competition."

For this year's contest, dubbed Steamworks, each robot had to start an "airship" that looks like a gazebo with helicopter rotors. Each rotor would start turning only when the Fierrbox retrieved the required number of loose plastic gears that were scattered around the field.

When time ran out, the ERRORs' robot had managed to start all four rotors, a feat accomplished by only two other robotics teams in 1,500 qualifying matches across the country.

Their secret weapon? The East Ridge team designed a "gear grabber" that enabled Fierrbox to be able to pick up objects off the floor.

"We knew it was going to be important to be able to pick gears up off the floor," Sawyer said. "We could run around the field and pick up any dropped gear, which is what most teams couldn't do."

The last remaining task required Fierrbox to climb aboard the ship using a rope.

The FIRST competition — the name stands for Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology — was founded in 1989 as a way to interest young minds in STEM subjects. The idea was that kids who might have little use for science, technology, engineering or math would change their tune if they applied these principles with a program that combines "the excitement of sport with the rigors of science and technology," according to the FIRST website.

"The kids that go through robotics have a drastic increase in pursuing of engineer and STEM careers," said Kate's mother, Jennifer Sawyer, the team's sponsorship lead and an engineering manager at 3M. "Across the board, what it does for these kids is incredible."

William Loeffler

William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 

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