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TrekNorth robotics team prepares for competition in Duluth

From left, Jennifer Laitala, the technology coordinator at TrekNorth Junior & Senior High School, watches as 11th-grader William Anderson tightens a wire connection on the base of a robot. Math teacher Jeff Jones holds the robot frame steady as 11th-grader Hannah Ehli, far right, assists. Students at TrekNorth are building two robots to use in a robotics competition held in March in Duluth. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

A group of 18 students from TrekNorth Junior & Senior High School are turning 140 pounds of gismos, gadgets, wires and chains into robots that can move, reach and climb, all in only six weeks.

TrekNorth's first-ever robotics team will showcase one of its robots from noon to 2 p.m. today at the Paul Bunyan Mall in Bemidji. Students and staff from TrekNorth will be there to answer questions and demonstrate the robot's abilities.

JCPenney, a national sponsor of the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology program, awarded TrekNorth $6,000 to build a robot and enter it at the FIRST tech challenge March 10-12 in Duluth.

This is the first year a team from Bemidji will be represented at the Duluth tech challenge.

"It is amazing. It's unbelievable," Michael Beard, store manager of JCPenney store in Bemidji said of the FIRST program.

Under guidance of TrekNorth teacher Jeff Jones and Dean of Students Andrew Wiggins, students are working to build two robots operated by a laptop computer and joysticks. The robots will compete against 41 other area schools at the FIRST tech challenge.

Each year, the FIRST program comes up with a different robot challenge. This year's challenge is to have robots play a game called "logomotion."

The game, which is played on a 27-foot-by-54-foot field, involves an alliance of three teams playing against an alliance of three other teams. Four towers, or poles, are located in the middle of the field. Two arrays of scoring pegs form scoring grids that are located in the front of each alliance wall.

The objective of the game is for students to control their robots and attempt to place three inner tubes shaped as a square, circle and triangle on a scoring rack. The inner tubes can be placed anywhere, but are worth more if they create the FIRST logo. Robots must drive the length of the field with each new game piece. Teams are even provided with small cameras that can be placed on their robots to follow lines on the floor.

Near the end of the match, the robots must drive to the towers and deploy their minibots, which are smaller robots attached to the main robots, on the tower poles. Minibots must race to the top of the towers. The first minibot to the top of the tower earns a 30-point bonus.

Last year's challenge was for teams to build a robot that could kick a soccer ball.

If this sounds complicated, it is.

FIRST robots are complex machines. High school students spend weeks forming ideas, drawing designs and building parts over and over again. The process can be frustrating and incredibly time -consuming, as it often involves assembling parts, putting parts back together again and repeating.

Not only is TrekNorth a newcomer to the world of robotic challenges, it does not have an industrial technology laboratory or machinery garage that students can use.

Fortunately, the owner of the Simonson Center has allowed the robotics team to use the old Picture This store, which is located in the same building complex as the school.

"This is the first time I've ever done something like this," Jones said. "Some of the students have done simpler kinds of robots, like Lego robots, but this is the big varsity-level robot."

TrekNorth's robot is roughly the size of the bed of a self-propelled lawn mower. It has six wheels and a 12-volt battery, which is powerful enough to run a lawn mower.

"As this thing drives, if we don't have everything secured, the wiring will come loose, and at competition, that would be bad," Jones said.

The minibot, which has not been built yet, will likely weigh five pounds and will need to be designed so it can climb up a pole.

Jones said he and the students felt overwhelmed when they opened the crates of robot supplies in January.

"We get all the parts and we stare at them and we think, 'Woah,'" he said. "So I'm pretty pumped we got this far."

While 18 students at TrekNorth have helped in building the robot, only 14 students will take part in the tech challenge in Duluth.

The FIRST tech challenge season started Jan. 8, when teams from around the region picked up their supplies in Duluth. Teams are not given their robot objectives until they pick up their supplies and instructions. The teams have until Feb. 22 to build their robot, when it will then be shipped free of charge to Duluth. Students will not see their robot again until the tech challenge in March. However, they have until the regional competition to finish building their minibot.

Despite having no background in building robots, 11th-grader Riley Pettit signed up for the robotics team at TrekNorth.

"I had no idea what was going to happen with it," he said. "I'm glad I had the opportunity to work on it, though."

Ninth-grader Connor Flack said he signed up because he enjoys computer programming and building robots.

"I like the mechanical part of it," he said. "I take stuff apart and sometimes put it together and make something else."

William Anderson, an 11th-grader, said he has been building robots since he was 6 years old.

He said one of the most challenging parts of building the robot was putting all the pieces in place.

"We didn't exactly know what we were doing at first," he said. "We followed a diagram. At the end we hoped it would turn out."

The TrekNorth robot team has yet to build the arm on their robot. But they are not going with too complicated of a design.

"A more experienced team will have more motors and more things going on with the robot," Jones said. "Our robot is going to be simple. We're hoping our arm can move up and down. More advanced teams will have several motors in the arm. We're trying to make it work as best as we can."

While the TrekNorth team members appear confident in how they will build their robot arm and eventually their minibot, some members are starting to feel the pressure of a deadline only nine days away.

"The other teams mentioned how very efficient you become as the due date approaches," Pettit said. "There's not a lot of time, but at least we can now drive it around and have it go between cones."

The FIRST program rewards points to teams for not only winning the "logomotion" game, but also for excellence in design, team spirit, professionalism and maturity, and ability to overcome obstacles.

"There are all these alliance dynamics," Jones said. "You can actually score points for your cooperation with other teams. If we build a minibot that works well and we give it to another team, then we both gain points. Teams also earn safety points."

The robot project is not cheap, which is why not all schools participate. TrekNorth's overall robot budget is $9,000. Besides working on the math and science part of the robot, several students helped with fundraising.

"There are a lot of different kids doing a lot of different things," Wiggins said. "It's not just computer programming. Some students have helped with t-shirt designs and button designs. They had to learn how to go in and ask for money. It's almost like interview skills."

Some students at TrekNorth traveled to Itasca Community College in Grand Rapids on weekends to meet with other schools that are building robots for the tech challenge.

"We all help each other with our problems because we all have problems," Jones said.

Jones said when the team members arrive in Duluth, they will have to get their robots inspected. All robots must meet the correct weight and electrical requirements in order to compete. The winning team is eligible to attend the national competition in April in St. Louis, Mo.

Pettit, Flack and Anderson agreed that working on the robot has made them become more interested in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

"It's definitely a rare opportunity, especially for a small school, to go from a box full of parts to building a robot," Anderson said.

More information

To view TrekNorth's robot team website, visit

To view a short video of how the robot competition game works, go to and search for "FIRST robotics logomotion competition."