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Junior high robotics team kicks off in TH

Logan Cox, Sam Poe, Kannon Ault, Noah Smith, Joe Walsberg, Asia Sarracca and Mikayla Pierce stand behind the obstacle course they will have to tackle for competition. They will program their robots to complete as many tasks as possible in 2 minutes and 30 seconds. Photo by LaReesa Sandretsky.1 / 2
Isaiah Martin and Kannon Ault tinker with a piece of the obstacle course during their robotic team's practice on Tuesday. Photo by LaReesa Sandretsky.2 / 2

On the heels of the success of the Two Harbors High School robotics team, the junior high kids are now getting a chance to build a functioning robot.

The FIRST LEGO robotics team for 6-8 graders kicked off this fall and about 30 kids are participating.

"We had twice as many kids as we thought we would," said coach Karen Lodin, a math teacher at THHS.

FIRST is a nonprofit that aims to interest kids and teens in science in technology. They are the organization behind the international high school robotics program, in which both Two Harbors and Silver Bay have participated.

LEGO robotics is a little simpler than the high school version, but still challenging. The kids have to construct a small robot and program it to accomplish tasks on an obstacle course. In competition, they will have two minutes and 30 seconds to complete as many tasks as possible. In addition, each team has to do a research project on a natural disaster.

Cooperative Light and Power and Two Harbors AGE to Age have provided grants for the program, and Gary Sherburn, a local retiree with experience in the Marshall School robotics program, has been a big help, Lodin said.

"We're going to learn lots," said Jenna Udenberg, who spearheaded the program. She teaches band to junior high kids in Two Harbors.

Three teams - one of seventh and eighth-graders, one of sixth-graders and one made up of only girls -- will be competing with their robots in a scrimmage on Nov. 23 and at the regional competition on Dec. 14. A fourth team is building a robot but won't be competing.

On Tuesday afternoon, about 10 kids were in Udenberg's room, clustered around robots, obstacle courses and computers. Kannon Ault, a sixth-grader, said joining the team was an obvious choice for him.

"I love Legos and I wanted to try making robots," he said. His team is doing its research project on the Yellowstone supervolcano.

The teams have assembled their robots, on loan from the College of St. Scholastica, and are currently working on programming them and researching their chosen natural disaster. Isaiah Martin, a sixth-grader, has taken over programming responsibilities for his team. He knew he was interested even before he tried it.

"I'm like, 'I am so a programmer,'" Martin said.

FIRST's primary goal is to teach kids the professionalism that will help them excel in future careers. Udenberg said they're also learning the golden rule - treat others as you want to be treated. They are even graded during the competition on how well they interact.

"They're working on core values ... it's a hands-on application on how to treat people," Udenberg said.

Udenberg is also on the district's climate committee, which is dedicated to creating supportive social and learning environments in its schools. She thinks the bonds the kids have formed will help accomplish that goal, too.

"We've already developed a little family on our team. Kids from all walks can work together ... and I think that will help our climate," she said.

These big life lessons aside, building a robot and programming it to navigate LEGO-based tasks is just plain enjoyable. Just ask sixth-grader Asia Sarracca why she joined robotics.

"Because it's fun and I like building stuff," she said.

LaReesa Sandretsky
LaReesa Sandretsky is a Two Harbors High School graduate and Duluth native who began working at the News-Chronicle in 2012 as a reporter. She took over as editor in 2014. She covers County Board, including the Lake County broadband project.
(218) 834-2141