UPSALA -- Though they’re in their off-season, the Bemidji High School FIRST robotics team will be attending the Northern Minnesota Robotics Conference Championship in Upsala, Minn. on Friday.

According to the NMRC website, this conference was created by regional high school robotics teams in order to provide a competitive structure and growth of robotics in northern Minnesota.

Friday’s championship, free and open to the public, will be followed by an NMRC “OPEN” Tournament on Saturday for FIRST robotics teams throughout the Upper Midwest.

Following their homegrown tournament held at the Sanford Center in April, BHS’ RoboJacks were eager to attend an event in their off-season before the regular season begins in January.

“These kids are enthusiastic and hard-working, so this is a chance to make sure the robot functions in the off-season is one of excitement,” RoboJacks coach Kirk Anderson said.

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The team currently meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays to practice driving, fine-tune their programming and come up with ideas for recruitment and fundraising.

After the Infinite Recharge robotics challenge was announced in January 2020, most schools only had a couple of weeks of an actual competition season before the COVID pandemic hit.

Due to the cancellation of all other tournaments for the 2020 season, FIRST allowed Infinite Recharge to carry over to this year, allowing for teams to fully experience this course with the robots they already built.

During the six or seven weeks leading up to these competitions, the team would meet Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, with some students working until 11 p.m.

“As long as (the students) remain productive, they will stay as late as necessary,” Anderson said. “When it’s crunch time, they really look to fix any problems with welding, motors and programming.”

A mentorship need

Split into three main sub-teams including builders, programmers and business, Anderson emphasized the need for more professional mentors to challenge and encourage students with their respective tasks. They currently have one mentor supporting the building team.

Anderson encourages anyone wishing to support the RoboJacks to get in touch with him by visiting www.robojacks4674.org.

“You don’t have to be a programmer or welder. If you have an interest in helping students achieve something amazing, we welcome anybody,” he said.

Anderson is doing part of this himself by having students switch roles and learn new skills.

“Moving a kid from the business team to being a builder, or vice versa, expands their boundaries,” Anderson said. “There’s an excitement, sometimes apprehension, to be the one speaking in a presentation for example. But, they do their best to be the best.”

The RoboJacks currently have around 12 members, new and returning, with more taking roles in business and programming.

“With the robot already being built and having the same game from 2020, this off-season doesn’t appeal to builders,” Anderson said. He also added that they anticipate more new builders will join once the 2022 challenge is announced at the beginning of January.

He said the team is following careful COVID protocols, including masking and thorough surface cleaning. The competitions will also be limiting the number of team members in the pit area.

More information on the NMRC Championship can be found at www.nmrconference.org.