YELM - It was designed to climb mountains, balance on teetering bridges and stop at the edge of a cliff.
But most of all, Team Odin’s 18-inch robot was built to collect tiny plastic batons like nobody’s business, using a conveyer belt (made with foam-like shelf liner) and a plastic bucket that could double as a pencil cup.
The seven-member team, which hails from Yelm High School, clinched second place in a regional tournament in December, earning a state berth to compete against about 25 other teams in the FIRST Tech Challenge Sunday at Sammamish High School. FIRST is a New Hampshire-based nonprofit; it stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.”
The team will face some of the best-performing robotics teams from Washington and British Columbia, including one from New Market Skills Center in Tumwater.
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“I don’t think any of us expected it,” said Yelm senior Zachary Walter, 17.
But instead of basking in the thought that they could qualify for a national competition in St. Louis – the reward for the top two teams at state – the students have spent the past few weeks trying to engineer modifications to their remote-controlled robot.
“There were tons of changes along the way,” said senior Jaron Ellis, 17. “Too many to count.”
Yelm High School began its after-school robotics club last year. The program is funded by a grant from the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, said the club’s adviser, Doug Meyer, who teaches pre-engineering and computer networking at Yelm High School.
“The whole idea behind it is to get students interested in science, math and technology,” Meyer said.
High school robotics teams are relatively new to Washington, according to Eric Stokely, a math and science teacher at Tacoma’s Bellarmine Prep who helps organize robotic competitions in the state through a nonprofit known as FIRST Washington, or FIRSTWA. Most have formed in the past five years.
Stokely said there are 1,800 FIRST Tech teams nationally, and about 65 in the state and British Columbia.
According to Stokely, the program is a good way to help students learn about career options and other choices they have after high school.
“They suddenly realize, ‘Oh, that’s what you can do with this skills set,’” he said. “You can build equipment. You can design equipment. (The Massachusetts Institute of Technology) is actually bragging right now that 10 percent of their incoming freshman class has ‘FIRST’ experience.”
Last year, Yelm’s team grappled with inexperience and an enormous learning curve.
“We had a lot of technical difficulties last year,” Meyer said. “We didn’t do very well.”
This year, the school had enough students turn out to form two teams. Yelm’s Team Kronos finished 18th and 10th at regional competitions.
The members of Team Odin have each put about 50 hours into the project, which included building a robot from scratch and programming it to complete tasks along a 12-foot-square uneven obstacle course.
During a competition, teams receive points when their robots complete certain tasks, such as collecting batons or balancing on a wobbly bridge in the course. They also are paired up to work in “alliances” for a portion of the tournament.
Part of the fun is watching the other teams’ robots play the game, said Yelm senior Avery VanKirk, 17.
“Everybody’s trying to build a robot to do the same thing, but they are all different,” he said. “It’s amazing to see the other things that people come up with.”
Lisa Pemberton: 360-754-5433 firstname.lastname@example.org