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Robotics team thrives at DL High

"Before I started this whole thing, I just prayed and asked God to help me do something that was going to make a difference -- something that was going to matter long term," said Detroit Lakes mother Debbie Janzen.

Today, Janzen is seeing that prayer come to fruition after launching the Detroit Lakes High School Robotics Team -- a team that surprised everybody with a state win in its second year of existence last season.

That was last year.

This year, it's a whole new ball game.

"We've more than doubled in size," said Janzen, smiling.

The team went from around 11 members last year to 30 now.

Janzen credits the jump in popularity to newspaper articles on the team, word of mouth among students and what they call their "Cinderella year."

"It was really nice that we won because it made people sit up and take notice," said Janzen, "but the winning didn't make it any more legitimate or important because whether they won a competition or not, the fact is they were learning and growing and building friendships all along the way."

Not only did the community take notice, so did local, regional and state businesses as well -- offering up sponsorship they had to work very hard at getting last year.

Word has gotten out that the team has been quite lucky in getting sponsorship since their successful year, but Janzen says it's got nothing to do with luck.

"Companies see the importance of math and science and where our future is going, and they recognize that these kids are our future, and they want to support that," said Janzen, "The value of the program is the reason we're getting the support -- it's got nothing to do with luck."

The Detroit Lakes school board has also seen the value in robotics -- they've asked the team to represent them at the Minnesota School Board Leadership Conference in the Twin Cities next month.

"It's a great opportunity for kids all across Minnesota to showcase their new and unusual or successful programs that they do, and this is just a great thing that the numbers in our robotics team is increasing and a very good thing that local businesses are supporting them," said Detroit Lakes School Board Chair David Langworthy, "this couldn't happen without them or their team leadership."

Twin Cities engineering software specialists, Symmetry Solutions, also put four of the team members through one of its weeklong trainings.

"It was a $1,400-per-person training that they gave them at no cost," said Janzen.

Now, along with a much larger team and larger budget come larger plans.

We're going into things we never had the opportunity to do before because when we had 10 people we thought 'we have to get this robot done' -- that's where our thoughts ended," said team captain Jacob Conway. "This year, we have a website, an aesthetics team, we have people dedicated to electronics, people dedicated to mechanical aspects and teams that focus on specific tasks. We're branching into more things."

Freshman Ryan Wendt is new to the team, and says although the actual engineering of the robot isn't his strength, he still wanted to be part of the team.

"I'm the documentarian, so I write down what we do at meetings, and I'm also the public relations officers, so I have to talk to sponsors and mail letters out to them," said Wendt, who says he also plans on learning how to use tools he's never even heard of this year.

Sophomore Austin Hagen says he got interested in robotics last year when he attended a competition in Duluth, so when he came back to Detroit Lakes, he was excited to hear they'd formed a team.

"It's learning how to do a bunch of different things other than what you usually do in a day," said Hagen, who adds that he's excited about his role on the aesthetics team designing a look for the robot.

But Conway says the younger kids will soon learn that it isn't just about the robot, but it's also about the kids behind it all.

"I've seen people become more confident and their personalities come out of their shells," said Conway, "They figure out what their interests are whether it be writing, artsy stuff, engineering ... there's something in it for everyone and it really helps you learn how to work on a team."

That teamwork doesn't end at their team, though, as the Detroit Lakes students will be mentoring teams at the Circle of Life, Perham and Moorhead High School.

But it's not all bells and whistles for the team.

Additional students means the team is now dealing with space issues as they "get cozy" in what they call their bot garage in the high school.

"We can only fit so many people in there along with the robot, so we are sort of nomads in the school," laughed Janzen, adding that they work wherever there's room.

And although they've already raised the $5,000 it takes to enter this year's March competition, they're still fundraising to buy materials, computers (which they currently do not have) and enough money to haul a team of 30 to the competition.

To do this, they're selling specially made, highly efficient e-watt light bulbs. (Contact any team member for that).

In the meantime, the team will continue to take new members until the Christmas break because shortly after that is the kick off to the building season at NDSU Jan. 7.

"I would love to go to the championship," said Conway, "I would love to win the championship, that would be even greater, but I know that whatever we do we're going to have fun."

To find out more on the team, visit their website at