Robots overrun Williams Arena in high school competition

by Devin Henry

In its 80-plus years, Williams Arena is no stranger to competition.

But this weekend, it played host to a different type of sport, and the arena’s lights didn’t reflect off the athletes’ sweat, but instead off the gleaming metal of competing robots.

Friday and Saturday marked the Inaugural Minnesota Regional of the FIRST Robotics Competition, an event in which high school students built and maintained robots and competed with those from various Midwest schools.

Two years ago, Minnesota had only two FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics teams. This year, the state boasts 54, 43 of which competed in the tournament. Eleven teams from outside the state also joined the fray.

Before each round, the teams were randomly arranged into “alliances” of groups of three. Two alliances raced on a rectangular track, gaining points by sending large balls flying over hurdles high above the track.

The alliance with the most points at the two-minute match’s end won.

Once the final rounds began, the top-ranked teams from earlier in the weekend chose alliances. The overall winning alliance – consisting of teams from Cedar Falls, Iowa; Simley, Minn.; and Appleton, Wis. – will travel to Atlanta next month for the national championship.

The event’s aim wasn’t competition, but also building bonds between schools, said Mark Lawrence, chairman of the Minnesota Regional Planning committee for FIRST.

“People are exchanging strategies to raise the level of the other teams,” he said.

Two things guide the teams on their quest to the regional, assistant regional director Ken Rosen said.

“It takes a lot of money and mentoring,” he said.

Sponsorships help each team, and the University played a part in getting some squads to the competition, sponsoring multiple “rookie” teams for this year’s event, donating $6,000 to each.

One of those teams from a group of schools near Cloquet, Minn., called Anishinaabe, got money from the University and assistance from its educators.

“They came down and the students got to interact with professors and people talking at a college level,” Albrook High School technology educator Cameron Lindner said.

He said the goal for his team’s rookie effort was, “to get out there and have a good time; get the experience and get a little taste of it for next year so we’ll have a better understanding of what we’re up against.”

Another University-sponsored rookie team from Brainerd High School didn’t have time to fundraise before the six-week building phase began, and credits the University for getting them to the event.

“I don’t think there was any way we could have gotten the funds to get going,” said Brian Bordwell, career and technology education instructor from Brainerd.

Neither team passed the first rounds of action, but Bordwell said he learned from the “gracious professionalism” of the other competitors.

When Brainerd’s robot needed a new part, the Appleton team lent a replacement.

Bordwell said he and his team would adjust before their next contest.

“As rookies, we didn’t know any different,” he said. “We went with one plan and stuck with it.”

Hosting the event was a good way for the University to raise awareness about possible technology fields for high school students, said Institute of Technology spokeswoman Rhonda Zurn.

“This gives students an experience that is really outstanding,” she said. “Getting more students in science and engineering is what we’re trying to encourage.”

After two days of competition, more than 10 awards were given, recognizing everything from outstanding rookie team to professionalism.

The winning alliance consisted of two veteran teams and one first-year squad.

Lawrence, who told the gathered teams he hopes to expand the event next year, said team bonding and competition go hand-in-hand.

“You’re not out there to crush your opponent,” he said.