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Robots gear up for regionals

Logan Anderson, Owen Cruikshank and Dennis Pearson of the Two Harbors Robotics team discuss strategy during last year’s regional competition. File photo, 2013.1 / 2
Volunteer Mike Ketola with students Hank Bemlott, Bradley Dugas, Spencer Ketola and Katherine Fragale work on the \Silver Bay Robotic’s teams robot. Photo by Michelle Ketola.2 / 2

Robotics teams from Two Harbors and Silver Bay headed to Duluth yesterday for the first day of a weekend-long regional competition.

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The Silver Bay Mariners are participating in their fifth robotics competition and the Two Harbors Agates are returning for their second competition. Robotics made its way to the region in 2008, and Silver Bay was one of the first schools to have a team. Since then, it has become a wildly popular activity. The state now has more robotics teams than hockey teams.

“We want this to be the new cool,” Two Harbors coach and special education teacher Lauren Burton told the News-Chronicle last year.

The North Shore students – 17 each in Silver Bay and Two Harbors – have been working most of the winter to build competitive robots for this weekend’s competition at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center. The teams will compete in alliances of three to score goals using a large exercise ball on either end of a court,  a space about half the size of a basketball court.

While most high school extracurricular activities in the state are organized under the Minnesota State High School League, high school robotics was started by the inventor of the Segway, Dean Kamen, and Woodie Flowers, an emeritus professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They started the organization FIRST to foster interest in science, math, engineering and technology.

Now, the MSHSL sanctions the program in Minnesota, but FIRST still defines its core – like the spirit of “coopertition,” where teams are encouraged to work together. The Mariners and Agates won’t find out who they will be playing with until the day before the competition. Then, they will be paired with two other teams and expected to work collaboratively throughout their matches.

“You gain points by being able to cooperate,” Burton said.

Both Burton and Silver Bay coach Chris Belanger said their teams are focused on strategy this year. Team members will assess the capabilities of other teams from around the state and plan how to best capitalize on one another’s strengths in the event that they become an alliance during the competition.

“We hope we can kind of prepare a little bit more with our alliance members and figure out the competition,” said Belanger, also the shop teacher at William Kelley High School.

This will be the fourth year for FIRST Robotics regionals in Duluth, and the second year the city has hosted two regionals, a sign of the venue’s growth. The ultimate goal of all the teams is to make it to the Worlds Competition in St. Louis in April.

The Two Harbors team attended the tournament in 2013 in its inaugural year of competition. They were named the best rookie team at the competition, giving them a ticket to Worlds. This year, they’ll have to earn their spot by finishing at the very top or winning one of a handful of other awards. The top 30 teams from regionals also move on to the state competition.

Both teams have built offensive robots that can shoot the ball into the goals. Belanger called it the most difficult robot the Silver Bay team has ever built.

“We went bigger and hopefully better,” he said.

The Agates built a robot that can pass, shoot and catch the ball. It can shoot at different speeds and  move diagonally and backwards.

“It’s pretty exciting compared to our previous robot,” said the team’s second coach, Mark Schlangen. He’s also a science teacher at Two Harbors High School. “It looks like it’s going to be a robot that works well with other robots.”

Two Harbors is being honored at today’s VIP luncheon, during which THHS Principal Brett Archer will be the keynote speaker. Dennis Pearson from the Agate Robotics team will also speak.

“Brett Archer has become kind of a hero to robotics because of his enthusiasm for robotics,” Burton said.

Both coaches said they are fortunate to have supportive administrators. Some teams in the state aren’t allowed to meet in schools. Instead they hold practices and build sessions in garages or any other space they can find. Silver Bay and Two Harbors communities – including the administrators at both schools – have been incredibly supportive through donations of time and money, the coaches said.

The teams will compete at the DECC today between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. and tomorrow from 9 a.m. to noon. Find the match schedule for the teams here.

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.
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