Bemidji Middle School robotics teams take their skills to state

Together with sixth-graders Tanner Johnson and Eric Bittmann, as well as a handful of others, Gieser was tucked away in a corner of Bemidji Middle School on Wednesday, getting ready for a trip to St. Cloud where the school would compete in the VEX Robotics Competition, Jan. 30-31.

Competing in the St. Cloud tournament, though, was only the most recent challenge for the students. Not only have they competed in other tournaments leading up to their St. Cloud competition, but they also were tasked with the challenge of building their robots in the first place — a process that takes technical skills as well as team building.

For that matter, it also can take quite a bit of determination. “Since I made the base of the robot from scratch, I had to make it 12 times,” Gieser said.

To begin the process, Bittmann said they looked up some different designs from the Internet and then started incorporating the components they liked.

Even though the process may have taken a decent amount of trial and error, not to mention time, they finally got it to the place they wanted it to be. While fairly compact at times, their robot can unfurl itself to an impressive height.

“It’s able to do anything on the field,” Bittman said, referring to the area where they drive the robot.

Under the names 1523A-Firefly, 1532B-Firestorm, 1532C-Firebird and 1532D-Fireball, the four teams from Bemidji Middle School were set to compete against nearly 60 teams from around the state in St. Cloud.

As part of the competition, the students essentially have to make their robots perform a number of tasks. In the other end of the room at the Middle School on Wednesday, another handful of students were practicing just that.

Sixth-grader Nick Settle was using a remote control to maneuver his robot around a padded floor, picking up large, colorful blocks with the robot’s arms and putting them in designated places. A slew of other students stood nearby, offering commentary and critiques.

For being relatively new to the scene, the middle school has developed a solid program. The coach, Daniel Falk, has taken a crew of students to state every year since the program began around six years ago. In 2018, students from Bemidji even went far enough to take part in a worldwide robotics competition in Louisville, Ky.

Like most teams, not all the students behind any one robot do the same thing. Some focus on the mechanical side of the project. Others might be more interested in programming the robots. Falk said being in the robotics program helps students learn what they’re interested in.

“To be honest, there’s a lot of self discovery on their part,” Falk said. “Some kids think they want to program and then they realize they like the electrical side better, or whatever it is. So, a lot of it is just them coming in and finding out what it is that they’re good at and what they like.”

Some of the students began their experience with robotics even before they started middle school. Bittman said he began while he was a student at Bemidji’s Gene Dillon Elementary.

As much as acquiring technical skills may help the students once they enter the job market, Falk said there was another useful skill the club provides to the students.

“The big thing people don’t realize is it isn’t so much the mechanical part of the robot that’s important. It’s the ability for them to work together… communicate, solve problems, all of the things that have to happen on a day to day basis in any company,” Falk said.

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