TeKnights team members Khristian Pike, Jordan Chinnow and Joshua Vandeweerd discuss the workings of the team's robot during the state competition.
TeKnights team members Khristian Pike, Jordan Chinnow and Joshua Vandeweerd discuss the workings of the team's robot during the state competition.
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The robot of the Kingsland High School TeKnights robotics team may have looked ordinary next to some of the innovative ones from larger districts brought by semi or charter bus to the First Robotics robot engineering competition held at the Duluth Convention Center March 7 to 9, but it performed admirably as the team finished in the top 12 teams at the meet, good enough to qualify for the next round.

"It was certainly a game changer because we didn't think we'd do so good," said robotics team member Isaac Becker, speaking of the team's unexpected success at the Duluth competition, in which the team finished in far higher standings than they did last year, their first year competing, when they came home finishing 49th out of 60 teams.

Acting as team spokesman, Becker explained, "We made it to the semifinals, one of the 12 teams that made it to the top 12 standings. Our ranking officially was 22nd, but we were chosen as one of the teams meeting for the quarterfinal games against another top team...they picked us."

"Us" is the team comprised of Becker Jordan Chinnow, Tori Jones, James Hayes-Hall, Kristian Pike, Brandon Balliet, Josh Vandeweerd, Elia Hurst, Isaac Hurst, advisers Andrew Brouwer and Brad Reiter and fix-it man Jerry Donney, who came together to build a Frisbee-flinging robot for the First Robotics competition, one they began working on immediately after returning to school from Christmas break, one they felt was "good," but not anything ready to take on the big teams that have semis and charter buses to transport their robots and teams.

Robotics is the fastest growing activity in Minnesota schools, starting with just two teams in 2006 and likely growing to more than 200 soon. Minnesota last year became the first state in the country to sanction a state tournament and championship for robotics teams. Teams compete by building robots to perform certain tasks - shooting basketballs last year and throwing Frisbees this year - and then determining which robot does it best.

The Kingsland team, sponsored by J.C. Penney's, Medtronic of Rochester, IBM and Swiss Valley Farms, did the best they could with the time and funds they had and worked literally down to the wire to be certain everything was properly connected and maneuverable by computer-aided guidance. Their robot was sealed for security and fair competition from the time they finished it on Tuesday, Feb. 22, to the time they started it up on March 7. The team used the interim to build bumpers for the robot and to prepare for practice rounds.

They arrived at the Duluth Convention Center, took a look around at the other teams' seemingly impossible yet innovative robots, then got out their screwdrivers to make adjustments to parts that had come loose in transit.

"The first day of practice, we didn't get to compete because we had issues with the robot's mechanics and programming," said Becker. "We set our pneumatics, and once we set them, we were good. Once we got things up and running, we played, ended up in the quarterfinals and lost our first match, won the next two, moved up to the next branch, played against another quarterfinal team on our side of the roster, lost the next two, and lost during the semifinal match with the team that picked us, but it's still great since the team just started working together last year. I guess it was just luck, because for the most part, our second day, we got the autonomous motor running for the free round, which meant that the robot could run on its own. That got us an extra 16 points at the start of the game."

Becker pointed out that he saw "unbelievable" robots that defied physics, like "one that used magnets really high on its chain drive to pull itself up onto the climbing platform," and others that looked as ordinary as the one the TeKnights brought, but their performances were so very different from one another.

"Our robot was quite a bit faster due to the belt system we put in. The one with the chain drive and magnets did well, too," explained Becker. "It was insane what some of the teams thought of. The competition was certainly interesting, and it was fun talking to the other teams, seeing the hustle and bustle before the competition - you go from being relaxed when you get there to being on your toes and busy. If you miss two rounds, you're disqualified, and if something goes wrong with your robot, you can be disqualified just because your rounds are one after another and you're not ready. We realized that one point matters, learned that we should always be prepared for everything. You've got to be able to look for loose screws, motors that lose function...one of our batteries died mid-game, but we were always ready and excited."

Becker, who doesn't like the robot build as much as he likes taking the machine to competition, credited having better tools and knowledge of the competition as reasons the team fared well in its sophomore year. "We had a better tool base because Mr. Brouwer bought us some tools instead of us using the ones in the shop, and we had more experience than last year."

The team is seeking sponsorships for the 2014 competition, as it qualified to compete at the semifinals but could not afford to attend. Although robotics is considered a sport, districts throughout Minnesota treat it as an activity and don't budget for the several thousand dollars that kits cost. Becker expressed the team's appreciation for its 2013 sponsorships, adding that creating a robot in a small community means that more people are aware of the team's activities.

"People are talking about us, and the support we get from the community is great. We're thinking of rolling the robot out at a school board meeting or something, maybe setting up an event where people can put their name on the robot if they sponsor it," he said. "We just need kids in ninth grade and above - kids in seventh and eighth can help build, but they can't compete. It's fun to change an idea in your head to something that's worth something, and we're ready for next year."