2018-03-01 / Life in Leelanau

Mentors talk benefits of robotics as county clubs shift into high gear

By Jen Murphy
Of The Enterprise staff


WYATT DANIELS assists Ethan Kinnee with wiring Glen Lake High School’s robot as Jumpei Ohashi looks on. All three of the high school juniors will be participating in tomorrow’s robotics competition in Traverse City. WYATT DANIELS assists Ethan Kinnee with wiring Glen Lake High School’s robot as Jumpei Ohashi looks on. All three of the high school juniors will be participating in tomorrow’s robotics competition in Traverse City. It’s what everyone looks for in a quality educational program — communication, teamwork, critical thinking and life skills.

Robotics offers all of the above.

“It’s a different style of learning,” Suttons Bay High School lead mentor Bill Klein said. “Students gain some really good problem-solving skills.”

Leland team mentor Steve Berg said the program teaches students how to work with each other, manage time, build patience and “master” a task through repetition. Yet there’s a misconception about robotics, Northport mentor Mike Kruk said.

“A lot of people hear ‘robotics’ and they think, I don’t know, tech or computers,” Kruk said. “I’ve found that the core of robotics is teamwork and delegation. These are real-life skills that everyone needs.


JUMPEI OHASHI, a Japanese exchange student and a junior on the Glen Lake robotics team, files a piece of metal to be installed on the ‘bot for this weekend’s competition in Traverse City. JUMPEI OHASHI, a Japanese exchange student and a junior on the Glen Lake robotics team, files a piece of metal to be installed on the ‘bot for this weekend’s competition in Traverse City. “In sports, everyone has their positions and everyone knows what they need to do. In robotics, there are lots of different tasks that need to be done, and dynamics that need to be worked through to solve a problem.”

Christopher Morehead, the mentor of Glen Lake’s robotics team, said the “name of the game” is cooperation.

“Even though teams are competing against each other, they are also working together and helping each other out, which is a lot like how companies work in the real world,” Morehead said. “High school robotics is about a lot more than just the robots and the technical skills — there are people skills, communication, safety considerations and all sorts of other things that students experience throughout the season.”

Klein said a term used in FIRST robotics (the high school program) is gracious professionalism.

“We want everybody to play the game,” he said. “It’s a mix of teams that we are playing — a team who just lost a programmer or cannot get their program to run, you go and see what you can do to help.”

And at last year’s competition, Suttons Bay did just that.

The team was honored with the gracious professionalism award.

“It’s the highest award,” Klein said. “All of your students walk away feeling they helped someone.”

Kruk also noted the practical, hands-on skills students gain.

“The majority of robotics is actually mechanical design and building,” he said. “Woodshop or metalworking skills that a lot of these kids don’t have a clue. Some of the practices, we just orient them to the tools and how they work. The get a better understanding of the physical, mechanical and electrical aspects of the project. Programming and anything tech is such a small percentage of what it’s all about.”

So when the season began in early January, the four Leelanau County teams were ready to start building.

“There are close to 3,500 teams in the world,” Klein said. “The season started on January 6 with a worldwide kickoff. We all get the same broadcast at the same time.”

Most teams are comprised of a variety of age levels and experience, so the FIRST challenges are designed so everyone can participate.

“They usually make challenges so rookie teams can play a certain aspect of the competition,” he said.

At the six-week mark, all teams are required to stop building and wrap up their robots until the team arrives at a competition.

This weekend, Leelanau County participants don’t have far to travel. They will compete in the season’s first competition in Traverse City.

But here’s the thing: Unlike traditional competitive events, each of the robotics matches require both competition and teamwork with the teams from the other schools.

Teams are randomly selected to work together in the competition with five students from one school paired with other teams of five from two other schools to form a group that will compete together against another three schools’ groups of five.

And unlike sports and some other club competitions, robotics has no leveling system.

“There are no divisions in FIRST robotics,” Klein said. “We play against any and everybody in the state. There are over 500 teams and 26 district events.”

Is the Leelanau contingent ready for this year’s competition?

All four team mentors think so.

Points earned are based on a predetermined scale based on the student-designed and constructed robot’s performance, which includes crossing certain lines in the field, delivery of power cubes to certain areas of the field, and even climbing up a wall and crossing a 13-inch-wide beam.

Teams that successfully complete this last task earn additional ranking points, which help to advance teams to higher levels of competition.

Klein said he sees the wall climb as a bit of a challenge to his team of 15 students.

“We’ve got a robot,” he said. “One of the things we can’t do yet is climb. But we’re working on that one.”

Berg is hopeful Leland’s robot will be able to climb as well.

“We have a different team this year. We lost a lot of seniors who graduated last year,” he said. “We haven’t made it climb yet, but we have strength, motor and a plan. We’re behind, but competition season is six weeks. After this weekend, we hope to still refine strategy and add a mechanism.”

Northport’s team of four students is taking a unique approach.

Kruk said the team design does not include a robot that picks up objects but one that sucks them in and shoots them out. It’s almost finished.

“We have our robot bagged with the arms on the front that intake the crate. The shooter part we are still working on,” he said. “Can we get it mounted and working together with the arms before Friday? We don’t know because we’ve never done a test with the whole robot.

“Regardless of the state of the robot, everyone is so excited to be at the competition and I think they’re really motivated and ready and willing, which is really great. I think we have a really great team. The team captain is so driven and able to lift up the other team members and pull everyone together.”

Glen Lake’s foursome is a bit more experienced.

“I am proud of our four high school team members (all juniors) and two very dedicated middle school students, who are new to the Glen Lake robotics program,” Morehead said.

Another requirement of a robotics team is participation in fundraising and community outreach.

It’s not cheap. Fees for a team’s kit and entrance fees for two events during a season is $5,000. And that amount does not include any costs associated with travel.

Fortunately, the Suttons Bay-Leelanau County Rotary Club is an active supporter of robotics and the opportunities it provides for our county’s students. Both Suttons Bay and Leland schools received funds from the group this year.

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