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High school robotics teams prepare for competition in Duluth

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Two Harbors seniors Willem Bohrer (left) and Brynn Torgerson work on their team's robot Monday night at the high school. (News-Chronicle photo by Jamey Malcomb)2 / 3
Silver Bay robotics team members (from left) Al Robertsen, Gunnar Frahm, coach Chris Belanger and Andrew Evenson during practice Monday. Frahm is holding an XBox 360 controller that is used to operate the robot. (News-Chronicle photo by Jamey Malcomb)3 / 3

The one in Silver Bay looks like a tank and the fire department's hook-and-ladder truck had a baby. The Two Harbors robot was in a little more disarray, with students furiously working to correct a problem with the climbing mechanism before the midnight Tuesday deadline.

The Two Harbors team discovered their mechanism wasn't legal, according to the competition rules, at a scrimmage Monday and had to scramble to complete it.

Both robotics teams in the Lake Superior School District are preparing for the dual regional competition March 4-5 at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center, the largest gathering of its kind in the world. More than 120 robotics teams and more than 2,000 people will converge on the DECC for a weekend of competitions where the teams' robots will form "alliances" and compete with the other "alliances" attacking and defending castles.

Minnesota has more teams competing in the six week robotics season than any other state except Michigan. In fact, there are now more robotics teams in Minnesota than high school hockey teams.

"It's a lot different that sports," said Silver Bay junior Gunnar Frahm. "I've spent more time in robotics than I have other sports, even though the season is shorter."

The six week season is intense, with Two Harbors seniors Willem Borher and Brynn Torgerson both estimating they've spent more than 300 hours working with their robotics team so far.

In spite of the time commitments from students and mentors, the competition encourages teams to help out their opponents and even award points for "gracious professionalism."

Both teams highlighted the ways the different teams were willing to help their competitors during the season. Frahm said he has contacted other teams with programming questions and says he's seen other teams lend out extra robot motors and equipment when another is in need.

"One of my favorite memories was at state robotics my rookie year," Borher said. "We saw this kid drop his toolbox filled with nuts and bolts and 20 kids swarmed to help him pick it up. All of these kids were just happy to help."

The biggest challenge for the Mariners has been programming. Coach Chris Belanger, an industrial arts teacher at William Kelley Schools, doesn't know Labview, the programming language the team's robot uses, and the students have taught themselves over the years.

"When we first started, one of the students had a niche for it," Belanger said. "From when we started to right now, the students have taught each other, I haven't touched anything with programming. I just go to those guys and say progam this and they figure it out."

The Mariners team is unique because at seven team members and five mentors and coaches, the team is one of the smallest teams that will be at the DECC next weekend. Frahm thinks of it as an advantage, because the students at Silver Bay have been involved with every aspect of building and programming the robot. At Duluth East, for example, there are more than 50 team members that are assigned different aspects of developing and operating the machine.

"I hadn't really taken shop classes because it never fit with my schedule, but I was still able to get taught by another student how to lathe and mill parts out and that's pretty cool, being a programmer," Frahm said.

At Two Harbors, the team is slightly bigger, with 21 team members, but it's unique because most of the team members are girls.

"My first year it was probably 15 boys and four girls, which was really intimidating and when we got to the DECC and we saw other teams they were often 80 percent male," Torgerson said. "This year we have 60 percent females, lots of whom are freshmen, so it's really neat to see more girls getting involved in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math)."

Another near universal challenge for robotics teams is the cost. The entry fee for the regional competition at the DECC is $5,000 and that doesn't count costs incurred by teams for building and programming the robot. Both teams have received sponsorship from companies both large and small, with Cooperative Light and Power in Two Harbors contributing to both teams. Silver Bay also received sponsorships from North Shore Federal Credit Union, Camp 61 in Beaver Bay, Medtronics and Arrowhead Manufacturers and Fabricators Association. Two Harbors received support from Stanley LaBounty, Agate Electric and Maher Trucking, all in Two Harbors, as well as 3M.

Despite the cost, both teams have a lot of fun and learn many practical, real life skills that are increasingly necessary for life after high school in today's world.

And there's this, according to Frahm: "Who doesn't want to make a $6,600 robot and go bash into other robots?"

Check the News-Chronicle website for video of the Silver Bay robot in "training."

Jamey Malcomb

Jamey Malcomb has been a reporter for the Pine Journal since October 2018. He previously worked as a reporter for the Lake County News-Chronicle from 2015-2018. 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 worked as a sports clerk and news assistant at the Duluth News Tribune. 

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