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Building a better machine: Students troubleshoot robots in competition

From left, Nolan Flint, 15, Tanner Schreifels, 16 and Austin Johannes, 15, operate their robot Saturday in the Vex Robotics Competition. The trio was representing Boy Scout Troop 15 of Cold Springs. Justin Glawe | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI – The belt kept breaking.

It was an olive green conveyor, with little black plastic tabs charged with a simple task: pick up the bean bag.   

But no matter how many spacers or treads Brandon Quern attached to the belt, no matter how hard he, Cody Vettleson and Anthony Peldo pulled on the stretch of plastic, it wouldn’t hold during competition.

Round after round, Quern took off his shoes, entered the ring and picked up their robot, and either Peldo or Vettleson retrieved the broken belt.

“What do engineers do?” the master of ceremonies asked Quern before one of the team’s first rounds.

“They build stuff.”

Since November, the three sixth-graders have met three nights a week at the Clear Waters Life Center in Clearbrook to construct their robot. And as the Vex Robotics Competition wore on Saturday, they learned something else engineers must do.

Fix stuff.

“It’s loose. It’s way too loose,” Quern said after the team’s third round. He looked a little frustrated, but mostly determined.

Chris Bakke, who said “this mess started” six years ago when she helped her son in a similar competition, remained patient at the team’s operating table.

“Look at your options,” she told Quern. “We’re not sure it’s going to fix it, but we can at least eliminate variables.”

Bakke, along with Lisa Peldo and Linda Quern, have been with the boys since their school cut funding for the robotics program. They continued to troubleshoot from the bleachers Saturday, took photos and generally basked in an experience four months in the making.

But the speed at which the rounds came was a little unexpected.

“This goes way too fast,” Linda Quern said with a breathless smile.

Quern, Vettleson and Peldo comprised one of the youngest teams at the John S. Glas Fieldhouse. Their robot was put up against machines built by 22 other teams, mostly from high schools, across Minnesota.

His hat was carelessly cocked to the side, his tongue wagged out of his mouth, Quern toiled obsessively between rounds to fix the belt.

In the next round the group would face a monstrosity of a machine built by much older boys. It was more efficient, better designed and operated more skillfully than the robot the boys from Clearbrook had prepared.

Quern drove his team’s more humble machine, and it was able to drop one bean bag in the trough. The older boys collected almost a dozen.

Peldo and Vettleson looked a little disappointed as the buzzer rang, but Quern cracked a smile.

The belt didn’t break.

Justin Glawe
Reporting on crime, courts and Beltrami county government. Follow me on Twitter @JustinGlawe.
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