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'Clamps' advances: The DLHS QWERTY Robotics team gears up for bigger competition

"Clamps," left, is the robot that competed in the Bison BEST competition last month. The FIRST competition will feature, QWERTY. (Riham Feshir/Tribune)1 / 4
Jacob Conway and Patrick Link, right, demonstrate how they operated Clamps at their most recent competition.2 / 4
Qwerty robotics team members include, from left, Joya Hekanen, Drake Halver, Jacob Conway, Patrick Link, and advisors Debbie Janzen and Nathan Hoff. Not pictured: Jeff Fish, Karl Robinson, Nick Roethel, and mentors Sam Esser, Randall Fish and Dave Roethel.3 / 4
"dump chuck" won the most photogenic award at last year's Bison BEST competition.4 / 4

Debbie Janzen's basement used to be a home school for her son Jacob. Now it's robotics central.

With photos from recent competitions and equipment to be used for upcoming ones, it's an inspiring place for those brainy kids to create, tweak and perfect.

This year's Detroit Lakes High School robotics team has given themselves the name "QWERTY Robotics." With it, they will enter the FIRST Robotics Competition in Minneapolis this spring after coming back from the Bison BEST where they placed 10th out of 24 teams.

The Bison BEST, which stands for Boosting Engineering Science and Technology, was sponsored by North Dakota State University and held Oct. 29-30 at the Fargo Civic Center.

The team entered this year's BEST with their robot "Clamps" and advanced tremendously compared to last year. Their 2009 robot "Dump Chuck" placed in the 22nd spot, but took home the most photogenic award.

When asked how could the same group of students advance so many spots in just one year, the team responded with one word: Experience.

"This year, we just started chugging at it," senior Patrick Link said.

They learned "what not to do," he explained, adding that this year they actually had about two weeks at the end to fine-tune Clamps.

"I think our team gets really excited, not just about it running, but the coolness, the aesthetics," Janzen said.

The enthusiastic group of students look forward to every part of the process, even if it requires getting together for up to eight hours a week after school to work on their robots.

For Clamps, they started with the base and the wheels and went up from there. It took them about six weeks to complete the project, but to dazzle it up, they added some lights in hopes of scoring another photogenic award, or as they call it, "the cool award."

"Ours has 118 LED lights, but they don't care about the lights," Link said with a laugh.

It was still "cool" enough to have arms and of course "clamps" to be able to grab onto cones and score points during the three-minute rounds.

After experiencing the October competition and last year's FIRST, the group of 11 students are gearing up for the April FIRST competition, where hundreds of teams from all over the Midwest will participate.

"It's almost like Robot Wars, which I watched as a kid," Link said.

They already began building "Qwerty" but because funds are limited, they need up to $10,000 in sponsorships to finish the base and materials.

"I think it's really a neat opportunity for the kids," Janzen said. "A lot of times, people think it's programming and electronics, but there is so much more to it than that."

Along with the building, the students take on the responsibility of grant writing, 3D renderings, welding, painting and even public relations, which is one of Joya Hekanen's jobs.

"I'm not good at physics, I'm not good at math, but I'm good at building robots," she said.

The experience also opens up doors for the students in the engineering field. The opportunities for scholarships are almost endless for those who participate in the FIRST competition.

"It's way beyond science and technology at this point," said team mentor Nathan Hoff, of BTD Manufacturing, adding that every year, each college that sponsors FIRST offers at least one full-ride scholarship.

Any student can become a part of QWERTY Robotics and take on the FIRST competition this spring. The team said all they have to do is be a team player who's willing to learn.

And the adrenaline rush that comes at the end of a grueling, exhausting weekend is all worth it.