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Lego Robotics team headed to state

(From left) Zach Blaisdell and Reed Cruikshank explain to teachers, parents and school board members how their robot made of Legos works. (News-Chronicle photo by Jamey Malcomb)

The small machine made of Legos motors around the board gathering blocks and pushing them around to specific places. Around the board are other Lego creations that help create the game board and it's all a little confusing to the untrained eye.

One thing, however, is clear. These aren't your father's Legos.

The six student FIRST Lego Robotics team, the "RoboDweebs," at Two Harbors High School has worked since August to build a robot to complete certain tasks on the supplied board and research a topic. Late last month the team became the first in the program's four year history to qualify for the state competition Feb. 25 at Washington Technology Magnet School in St. Paul. Ninth-graders Mariah Amesbury and JoAnna Swartwood, eighth-grader Zach Blaisdell and sixth-grader Reed Cruikshank will all represent the school by competing in St. Paul and presenting their research on orcas next weekend. Ninth-graders Nya Johnson and Olivia Johnson also helped build and program the robot and game board as well as with the research, but they will be unable to attend the state competition.

The team presented to the Lake Superior School District Board as well as assembled parents and teachers Tuesday at the school about what they learned and to request the board's help in funding their trip to St. Paul. The board approved up to $2,400 to help the team travel and the students are raising money to help offset the cost to the district. In fact, they got a boost Wednesday night when Two Harbors State Farm agent Amy Jordahl stopped by with a $100 donation.

The four students headed to state all spoke to the board Tuesday about their experience this school year and the things they learned along the way. The students learned about public speaking, teamwork and, perhaps most importantly, patience.

At the section competition, the team was getting their robot ready for a run on the board, a sort of obstacle course supplied by the FIRST Lego League, and one of the team members dropped the robot, breaking off a number of crucial pieces.

"A couple of pieces broke off, but we didn't think it was a big deal. We put them back on where we thought they went and we went on with our board run," Amesbury said. "Come to find out, those pieces that fell off helped the robot in important ways. It was very sad because we got negative points on that run. Then we were like, 'Hey, now we know where this goes. They didn't mean to do it, it's OK, we can fix this, it's not the end of the world.'"

The team also strategized about their research topic to make sure it stood out to the judges. The competition this year is working with Animal Allies Humane Society and the students needed to research topic involving human animal situation. The group chose orcas to research because two of the team members had been to Sea World and saw the orca demonstrations that the park is ending over the next few years. Swartwood said when she first saw the demonstration, she thought it was "super cool," but upon further research, the orcas' lives in captivity were not as glamorous as it looks on the surface, but there was another reason too.

"The majority of the teams were doing domesticated animals and if they weren't they were doing butterflies," Swartwood said. "It was something that could differentiate us. We wanted something that would stand out and pick something you don't normally think of on a daily basis."

Both Cruikshank and Amesbury said they learned to speak up when something was on their mind and let the team know about it. For Amesbury, a self described introvert, speaking up and speaking in public was a new experience.

"Before I joined robotics, I was the quiet kid in the back of class," she told a crowd of assembled teachers, parents and school board members. "Now I'm more of an extrovert and I will speak up more."

Swartwood and Amesbury and their ninth-grade teammates are aging out of the program, but with a full season and a state qualifying season under their belts, rookies Cruikshank and Blaisdell will carry the team forward as veterans next year. Amesbury said she is planning to continue on to the Two Harbors Rock Solid robotics team at the high school level, while Swartwood is still deciding if she will join next year.

For more information or to donate to the RoboDweebs trip to St. Paul, contact coach Jenna Udenberg at (218) 834-8221, ext. 8426 or at judenberg@isd381.org.

Jamey Malcomb

Jamey Malcomb started as a reporter for the Lake County News-Chronicle in August 2015. Malcomb is a native of North Carolina and holds a bachelor's degree in English and history from the George Washington University and a master's degree in education from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. Malcomb moved to Minnesota in July 2012 and previously worked as a sports clerk and news assistant at the Duluth News Tribune. He is the beat writer for the Lake County Board of Commissioners, Lake Superior School District board of education and high school sports in Lake County. 

(218) 834-2141
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