When Frazee-Vergas students signed up last year for a construction trades class, they planned to build a house. Little did they know that nearly seven months later they would be taking home major awards and attending a world competition — in robotics.
“We got thrown into it and just took off,” McKalen Hedlund said.
“We didn’t know what to do or expect,” Nate Starry said.
But there were some hurdles before it got to this point, too. For one, students were upset that they were no longer building a house. Some even dropped the class.
The school district must have a contract to build the house ahead of time, and that didn’t happen this year.
Secondly, teacher Andy Paulson was new this year in Frazee.
“As a new teacher, I had no credibility with these kids,” he said.
But, the students and teacher pushed past the resistance together and are now riding a very successful wave in the robotics world.
Paulson taught robotics at his former school, New London-Spicer, for three years, so this was nothing new to him — just his students.
He not only offered the robotics class, he also started a club for after school. The kids started with the BEST (Boosting Engineering Science and Technology) competition and the enthusiasm began to build.
After they started building and had their first competition, Starry said as students, they “got more enthusiastic.”
Then came the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) competition in Duluth. They were required to build a robot up to 120 pounds and could spend up to $4,000 on it. There was a 120-page rule book they had to follow as well.
“It made us forget all about the house,” Hedlund said.
They were allowed six weeks to design, build and test the robot. And now that they are headed for the world competition, they had to package and ship the robot right away to ensure no modifications would be made before the competition.
The students all have different roles when it comes to the competition. It could be driver to pit crew to cheering section.
Each team’s robot had to go through a course that featured two towers. The robots had to climb the towers and throw discs into various slots that counted for different amounts of points.
Once at the competition in Duluth, the teams — 51 of them in Frazee’s division — were lumped into groups of three. In the first rounds, they had no idea who they would be paired with, but when it came time for the quarter finals, they were chosen by a higher ranked team to compete with them. That team happened to be Paulson’s former school.
The team had to go up against the No. 1 ranked team and won.
Moving on to the semi-finals, they were ranked No. 4 and won again.
In the finals, they won one of three rounds, taking second in the overall competition.
Besides the second spot in the competition, they also earned Highest Seeded Rookie Team, and the honor they may be most proud of, the Rookie All Star award.
That’s the one that earned them the invitation to the world competition in April.
They also took a fourth award home from the Duluth competition, but it earned them no points toward the robotics competitions.
Duluth prides itself on being a green city and held a side competition for the best robot built out of completely secondhand parts, or a junkyard robot.
The robot had to have directional arrows of some sort, and Paulson said that since he has some students only interested in welding, they created a static robot with directional arms for the competition. They won Most Creative Award.
Paulson said 75 percent of the teams at the Duluth competition — there were 99 of them — didn’t take home any awards. Frazee took home more awards than any other team.
“I’ve never been more proud of a group of students,” Paulson said. “To know we beat teams doing this many, many years is outstanding.”
Looking to the world
Planning for the world competition, the robotics team, which has dubbed itself the Kaotic Robotics — Keeping Ahead Of Technology In Communities — has to raise $10,000 for the competition.
There is a $5,000 fee to enter the competition, Paulson plans on about $5,000 for a bus to get everyone to St. Louis, Mo., for the competition and then about $2,000 for hotels. The competition is April 24-27.
So, after learning the robotics side of things, students are now learning the business side as well. They are making a business plan, contacting businesses and looking for support. They are organizing a couple fund-raisers, and they are getting their name known.
“They have embraced it better than I hoped,” Paulson said.
The world competition will see about 400 teams from 14 countries competing for first place.
Teams from throughout the United State and some from Turkey, Canada and Mexico have already signed up. Paulson said there will be even more from overseas signing up.
The winning team at the world competition will be invited to the White House to meet the president.
While that would be fantastic, the Frazee team’s goal is to take top rookie honors again. Paulson said they will be up against about 30-40 rookie teams.
Though it may seem out of order, the robotics team will likely be competing in a state competition in May, after the world competition.
There are 180 robotics teams in Minnesota, and the top 30 teams will compete in May. Paulson said he predicts that the Frazee team will be ranked 20th-25th in the state and will be able to compete there as well. Teams earn points based on competitions and trophies earned.
The future of Kaotic Robotics
With the success of this year, Paulson said next year he will be offering both a robotics class and construction trades to build a house.
He also hopes to build the robotics class in Frazee by working with the Detroit Lakes and Perham robotics teams to have scrimmages.
Paulson said that with the resistance he faced in the beginning, he’s even happier for the success of the rookie team because it shows students that this new program is a good one.
The change in the students’ attitudes was a great success for Paulson. Getting all those awards in Duluth were just “extra gravy on top.”
Follow Pippi Mayfield on Twitter at @PippiMayfield.