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Tower View students headed to robotics competition

Teacher Josh Nelson (second from right) looks at robot data with students Ryker Schultz (left), Courtney Carrell and Roberta Sellers. Photo by Sarah Gorvin1 / 2
The students have named their robot the Tower View Turtle because they wanted "a fast robot with a slow name." The robot will eventually have a green shell covering the mechanics. Photo by Sarah Gorvin2 / 2

Screwdrivers, spare wires, wrenches and metal scraps litter a long table in the lower level of Tower View Alternative High School. In the middle of the room, an object even more foreign to a typical classroom - a robot - picks up inner tubes and maneuvers them onto a stand.

The robot is the creation of the 11 juniors and seniors who make up teacher Josh Nelson's technical systems class. The students will use it to compete in the 10,000 Lakes Regional FIRST Robotics Competition this spring in Minneapolis.

And while the competition isn't until the end of March, FIRST guidelines state that students must have their robot complete by Feb. 17.

Last week, Nelson and his class were putting the finishing touches on their robot and working out the kinks.

"It's been complicated and frustrating, but the learning curve is really high," Nelson said.

This is Tower View's first time entering the FIRST competition, and even though they're a rookie team, chairman of the Minnesota FIRST planning committee Mark Lawrence said they shouldn't be at a disadvantage.

He said at the competition, collaboration among the teams is common. More experienced teams often pitch in and help rookies troubleshoot problems with their robots.

"(Everyone is) very anxious to make sure that all robots are working," he said.

The contest will consist of multiple parts. One is a timed round in which the robot is controlled by a joystick and has to move rubber inner tubes from the floor onto a stand. In another round, a minibot - a small robot - must climb up a pole without being operated by a human. This means the robot must be programmed to perform this task.

Nelson's class has been building its robot since early January. They brainstormed ideas and then drew up plans on paper before construction began.

The students had a budget $6,500 - provided by a grant from J.C. Penny Co.- that they used to buy the robot's parts.

"We did the best we could with the budget we had," student Ryker Schultz said.

The biggest challenge, Schultz said, was writing the computer code for the robot. But that wasn't the only challenge. For example, the robot's arm was originally constructed of aluminum. The class quickly learned that it didn't provide enough strength to pick up the inner tubes and they had to figure out a way to reinforce it.

"Each little thing presented its own set of problems we had to research," student Roberta Sellers said.

The students have worked for two hours a day, four days a week for the last six weeks to get the robot built in time. And while they've learned a lot about computer programming, engineering and design, they say they've also had a good time doing it.

"To make engineering a sport has made it really fun," Nelson said.

Sarah Gorvin
Sarah Gorvin has been with the Republican Eagle for two years and covers education, business and crime and courts. She graduated from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities in 2010 with a  journalism degree.