Students bustle in and out of classrooms on a Saturday afternoon, donning safety goggles use rulers and poster paper to create robot models. Advisers and mentors work shoulder-to-shoulder with the kids, providing feedback while a 3D printer hums in the background.
Unlike other after-school activities, this extracurricular requires only determination and a willingness to learn. As technology continues to advance, the necessity for innovative-minded individuals with experience in advanced programs and functions is crucially-lacking in our global economy. For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) Robotics plans to change that through mentorship of students who, in this program, learn to manage groups, code, wire, build a brand and, after six weeks of hard work, complete a robot in a yearly-themed competition against more than 100 other teams.
Two Harbors High School's Rock Solid Robotics Team 4656 started its sixth year of participation with the FIRST program a few weeks ago. Globally recognized, the program aims to foster excitement in the possibilities of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields for youth, with a mission of providing tomorrow with capable and confident leaders. The program reached rural, northern Minnesota through the which annually hosts the FIRST Lake Superior and Northern Lights Regional robotics competition at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center, the largest competition of its kind in the nation.
Intrigued by the possibilities, Two Harbors faculty members Mark Schlangen and Lauren Burton established the Rock Solid team 2012. The team began with about eight students, but grew quickly as the years progressed and the local community became aware of this new activity. Currently, the Rock Solid team consists of 26 members and continues to expand and grow.
At a kickoff event Jan. 6 at the University of Minnesota Duluth, a global livestream released the 2018 challenge and competition. The 2018 theme, "Power Up," adds an arcade-like twist to a goal of defeating the "Boss" in 2 minutes, 30 second game. Teams of three allied schools work together to use their robots to score more points than another, randomly selected team.
Kaija Schlangen, a senior who just joined the team this year, said the experience has exposed her to new activities and even students she hadn't really worked with before.
"With our team, especially, everyone is encouraged to step outside their comfort zone," she said. "With me, I'm on the media marketing team, but I still have to understand wiring or coding. The students who are more experienced are really open to teaching the newer ones."
Teamwork is essential to the game, requiring students to work together with students from other schools whom they may be competing against after a few rounds.
FIRST Robotics heavily emphasizes the importance of "gracious professionalism," a concept emphasizing the need to help everyone in the program succeed, with the goal of promoting learning and understanding between different people and groups. One team emerges victorious from each FIRST competition, but the lasting relationships and learning promoted during the season is what FIRST emphasizes most.
After leaving the kickoff event, Two Harbors students advisors went straight to the high school, where they spent the afternoon reading the 133-page manual and dissecting the game to begin planning their strategy.
"Rock Solid Robotics' goal this season is not only to do well at competition, but to grow as individuals in the world of STEM," captain Martina Swartwood said. "We work not as a team, but as a family."
The Rock Solid team will debut its 2018 robot during the regional competition March 7-10 at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center.