Robotics team working toward return to nationals

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Fans can get loud when they’re cheering on action at Williams Arena on the campus of the University of Minnesota. Over the years, they’ve risen to their feet to loudly voice their support for competitors in a variety of endeavors – swimming, wrestling, track and field, and most commonly basketball.

Sometimes they even cheer on robots.

Members of the Faribault High School robotics team have found that out over the years when they’ve traveled to Minneapolis to compete against about 60 other teams at their regional meet. The three-day event draws thousands of students and fans who get just as fired up as the attendees of a Big 10 basketball game as they watch their schools’ robotics teams compete for a spot at nationals.

“When it gets down to that last day of competition and all the top robots in the state are competing to win, it gets to be a really intense environment,” Faribault robotics coach Jason Engbrecht said. “It’s a lot of fun.”

Engbrecht, a professor of physics at St. Olaf College and vice chair of the Faribault school board, has coached the Faribault robotics team since it was founded five years ago. Last year, the team competed at nationals in Detroit for the first time after just missing qualification two previous years. With 16 out of 24 students back from last year, the team’s goal is to make it back to the national competition again this season.

“We’ve been having a lot of success and it felt awesome to get there last year, so our goal is definitely to go [to nationals] again. That’s been our motivation for all five years,” Engbrecht said.

That motivation has the robotics team practicing six days a week to prepare for the competition season. The season started in November with students learning skills they would need to help build a robot. In January the date of the first competition was announced and that began the six-week process of getting the robot built.

“This is the most intense time of the year,” Engbrecht said. “We’re meeting almost every night to design and build the robot from scratch.”

This year’s theme is Deep Space, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. The team’s robot will represent a space ship that has to pick up an orange ball and an acrylic disk and deliver them to places on a surface about the size of a basketball court.

The team is working to have the robot ready in time for two regional competitions in March – one in Duluth and one in Minneapolis.

“We have lots of pieces for the robot. What we’re building now are a lot of prototypes and mechanisms that will go on the robot, and the frame of the robot,” Engbrecht said. “We’re building examples of all the different pieces we think we will need so we can test them out, then we’ll build the final versions to go on the competition robot.”

In addition to the hands-on experience learned by working on the robot itself, team members learn other valuable skills like how to write business proposals, how to do fundraising, and how to write programming and create 3D designs for the robot.

“We’re all about being a team and working together. A robot is a big, complicated thing. No single person gets it done. It takes 24 kids working together, pulling in the same direction, and filling different roles,” Engbrecht said. “In addition, they learn lots of hands-on practical skills like how to use hand tools, how to run a drill or how to bend pieces of sheet metal. All these technical skills are great for kids as they go beyond high school.”

All the time spent together working toward a common goal also creates a positive environment that students want to be a part of, Engbrecht said.

“It happens slowly, but once you get them on a bus to Duluth for a competition for four days, by the end it’s kind of a family environment,” he said. “We’re all there together to try to do the best we can and have fun in the process.”

You can follow the Faribault robotics team on social media

Twitter: @Falcon_Robotics
Instagram: Faribault.Falcon.Robotics

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