The High School Robotics Team That Could

The team poses with one of the robots they’ve competed with

Compare the high school’s Demons FIRST Robotics team’s $10,000 budget to other schools’ teams that have as much as $85,000 to draw from. Compare its one-room former wood-shop and sparse equipment to state-of-the-art facilities designed with the sole purpose of building robots. Compare the team that sometimes struggled to stay intact over the past 15 years with districts that have K-8 feeder programs culminating in a multiple-team high-school program.

Then consider how remarkable it is that the Wyoming’s team qualified for the Worlds Competition, in St. Louis, Missouri, and, while there, made it to the playoffs.

FIRST Robotics involves battling ‘bots programmed and designed to complete a specific objective, such as launching a ball into a tower. The annual competition started in 1992 to help students develop a passion for science, technology, engineerin, and math (STEM) and to consider careers in those fields. Some 78,500 students on 3,140 teams from 24 countries competed during the 2016 season.

“If you look at our general robots, they’re nothing fancy,” said mentor Brian Tunnell. “They are nothing extravagant, but they’re robust. They’re functional. We’re the garage-mechanic, blue-collar, we-build-it-to-last robot. It’s like a ’65 Chevy Pickup instead of a Cadillac Escalade. It’s got quarter-inch steel and you can run it all day and it’s not going to get hurt.

“We just build ’em the way we know how to build ’em,” he added. “We give the kids a decent robot and we rely on them to make it good.”

With more than 400 FIRST Robotics teams, Michigan has the most of any state. Qualifying teams from Michigan’s district competitions advance to the state competition. Top Michigan teams advance to the world championships. Of 600 teams competing at Worlds, Wyoming finished in the top 42 percent.

“If you look at our general robots, they’re nothing fancy. It’s like a ’65 Chevy Pickup instead of a Cadillac Escalade. It’s got quarter-inch steel and you can run it all day and it’s not going to get hurt.” — Brian Tunnell, Wyoming Demons FIRST Robotics team mentor

The intense six-week robot build season, starting the first week in January, involves a student-led process to construct one designed to complete a specific challenge.

“Numerous teams sought out our team and made comments about how great our shooting and overall capability was,” said Robotics teacher and adviser Richard Budden. “The drive team and coaches did a spectacular job out on the field, as did the crew in the pit and stands.”

Several of the Robotics team members are girls. They competed at a girls-only event
Several of the Robotics team members are girls. They competed at a girls-only event

A World-Class Experience

After a season of accomplishments at district competitions, six of the 15 Wyoming High School Robotics teams members competed at Worlds: Dylan Kivinen, Tan Le, Hunter Noorman, Ediz Ozbay, Jacob Peters and Tony Tran. They were accompanied by five mentors including Budden and Tunnell.

The team hopes to continue to build on the success, adding more members and hosting a girls-only competition last October. Budden also started a high school robotics and Java programming class this year both to enhance STEM offerings and to recruit students for Robotics. The team, sponsored by General Electric, would love to add more resources and equipment, he said, like a CNC router, which is a computer controlled cutting machine.

Team members said FIRST Robotics is about much more than competing.

“It teaches us good life skills,” Hunter said. “You get to meet new people and you have to work with people you may not like and don’t know. And you have to make friends and collaborate with them. You need communication skills. We also learn to adapt to situations because things don’t always go as planed.”

Added Tan: “It was really us working together as a team. You have to really appreciate the small things that happen. Every victory made us happier and happier.”

Not to mention, “We come up with really innovative ways of fixing things,” added Ediz.

Being involved helped Tan decide what career to pursue. He said he plans to major in robotics at Michigan Technological University, Western Michigan University or Grand Valley State University.

Team members said the best thing about the program has been camaraderie, making friend and bonding over ‘bots. Tan said he looks forward to continuing on the robotics path.

“If I can meet other nerds like these nerds, that would be awesome,” Tan said.

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2012. Read Erin's full bio

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