Roughly a dozen Yellow Medicine East school board members, staff and parents trailed half a dozen elementary students into a room just down the hall from the YME board room; gladly leaving a YME school board meeting—paused.
Wearing mostly matching eager grins and ‘YME N.X.T’ t-shirts, with lettering bracketed by lightning bolts, a vertically staggered assemblage of pupils prepared to show the grown-ups what their fledgling tinkering has effected.
Comparatively oafish bodies sheepishly jockeyed for better sightlines as the proverbial curtain was about to be raised. Gleeful—due to the childhood transference kindled by seeing a Lego robot before them, or due to the Lego robot’s displacement of a loathsome, all-too grown-up board meeting— the grown-ups looked around the room grinning like they were just saved by the fire alarm from a math final. Plus they were gonna get to see some totally cool stuff—like a Lego robot. With lasers.
And even better: Know what? After the Lego robot (hey! hey! listen! listen!)—the big kids got a fully-blown, super-bad, extra-boss, hella-cool, crash-em’, bash-em’, holy terror, Mad Max death-machine robot that we get to see out in the hallway! And guess what!? It shoots frisbees! Like spinning death-frisbees! Yiiiiiipeeeeeee!
But like grown-ups got to do—like all the time (Ugh!)—they try to ruin it with a bunch of learnin’.
Basically, YME has two robotics teams that have been participating in team-based robotics programs and competitions for the past two years.
The Lego robot is the creation of the elementary and Jr. High (ages 9-14) YME NXT team (NXT being Lego’s marketing abbreviation of ‘Next’ as in “the ‘next’ step” for their robotics programming) which is a part of the Minnesota FIRST Lego League (MN FLL)—an international program that provides challenging opportunities for young people through real-world problem solving and robotics projects.
At a recent regional event the YME NXT team placed third and qualified for state. In competition, their robot had to perform tasks laid out for it that might translate into real-wold solutions for senior living (with ‘Senior Solutions’ being the selected theme for MN FLL this year), such as material handling and transportation.
Meanwhile, that fully-blown, super-bad, extra-boss, hella-cool, crash-em’, bash-em’, holy terror, Mad Max death-machine robot—that shoots frisbees—was built by the big kids (ages 14-18). Their team, the YME Stingbots, compete in FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics competitions.
They recently attended the MN FIRST Regionals in Duluth and placed 35-of-50 in the Minnesota State High School League sanctioned event. There, their robot had to shoot frisbees through opponents’ targets while defending targets of their own.
Page 2 of 3 - It’s basically math, science, technology, engineering, computer programming, cooperative learning and teamwork made awesomely B-A by robots and competition.
“An explosion in the popularity of high school robotics teams has suddenly made it chic to be geek,” said a recent Star Tribune report on the phenomenon of robotics teams in the state. “A telling statistic: For the first time ever, there are more varsity robotics teams than there are boys' varsity hockey teams in the state. There are 156 high school boys' hockey teams and 180 robotics teams, up from 153 last year, according to the Minnesota State High School League.”
In the little room at YME, the six students from the 10-student YME NXT team make final adjustments to their Lego robot.
Coach Amy Hoernemann (also an elementary reading specialist at Bert Raney) explains how the students have built their robot and it’s attachments and how they have programmed it to autonomously carry out its tasks. (Guessing ‘autonomous’ means the robot has the ability to eventually enslave mankind.)
“Autonomous just means the robot has to act without the kids controlling it,” says Hoernemann dashing Sci-Fi fantasy. “They program every task the robot has to complete”.
A kid sets the Lego robot down and presses a button, while the grown-ups silently peer in. A laser deploys (no one is vaporized as the laser tracks a path that the robot rolls along) and the robot works it’s way over to a block, stops, picks up the block (here everyone holds their breath) and carries that block back to the robot’s home base.
Kids grin. Grown-ups clap. Laid back cats nod, “Cool”.
“We’re really happy with how things turned out this year,” says Hoernemann. “We learned, we did well. And you know, it’s not just about robots and programming, it’s about teaching students to be better citizens”.
Core values: blah. Laser guided robots: sweet.
Out in the YME High School foyer the high schooler’s battle bot is ready to demonstrate it’s robotic power and deadly frisbee flinging capabilities. Junior James DeJager is at the laptop controls with his finger hovering over the ‘FIRE’ button as the grown-ups stand back, hopefully fearing mutilation.
“It is a competition, but if team’s work together they can acquire more points,” drawls Stingbots coach Andrew Holt, a special education teacher at the high school. “We’d really like to take more advantage of workshops and training sessions this year to learn more about all the components.”
Page 3 of 3 - Yeah, yeah, yeah. FIRE! FIRE! FIRE!
“Minnesota West has been really great. They’ve donated a room where we can store all our stuff and there we have a 4’ by 8’ work table we can work on the robot from,” says Holt. “We’ll need to do some more fundraising so we can add some more tools for our kit... We’re also hoping for some more sponsorship. Jake’s Pizza and the Kiwanis, so far, have been great sponsors.”
DeJager’s been cut loose. Everyone thinks about taking a step back from the semi circle as he runs the robot noisily in a circle. He puts the mini-tank into a flat spin to the right and then back to the left; spinning on wound-up electric motors.
The thing hauls. It’s a certifiable beast. A dream machine that makes the little kid in the back of your brain giggle with glee and scream “Me next!”.
DeJager then gets the firing mechanism whirring. He hits ‘FIRE’. Nothing. Frisbees jammed. Dang.
Junior James Trotter clears the jam. It whirs again. DeJager aims the savage machine away from the crowd of women, children and gawking men. Steady...
The frisbee pops out of the machine into a satisfying, though short, flight. The distance is a slightly anti-climatic three feet. Not quite deadly.
Holt begins describing the Stingbot’s offensive deficiencies compared to more established and better supported teams.
FIRE! FIRE! FIRE!
Frisbees come spinning out in quick succession: Distance supplanted by rate of fire.
“It’s pretty calm here. But it’s not calm at competitions,” says Holt. “The kids have to learn how to perform under pressure and how to get the robot to perform under pressure. We’ve found that robots don’t really work all that great when there’s pressure. [DeJager] can tell you about that. But we’re learning...”
Wait... So, you’re saying with a little learnin’ we can have this thing firing real death-frisbees?
Yes?... Alright. Forget everything said about that book learning and that core value crap ruinin’ stuff. Let’s cooperatively team work and problem solve to get this thing shooting fireballs by next year.
Want to sponsor the YME NXT team, or the Stingbots, or both? Help build the Chuck Norris of competitive robots by contacting Amy Hoernemann, or Andrew Holt at firstname.lastname@example.org.