District 196 robots reveal metal mettle

District 196 sends 12 teams to FIRST Tech state

Members of the Dakota Hills Middle School FIRST Tech team CrushBots are Audrey Schwartz, Billie Alexander, Cassie Sievwright, Kristin Cullen and Samantha Ballesteros. Photo submitted
Members of the Dakota Hills Middle School FIRST Tech team CrushBots are Audrey Schwartz, Billie Alexander, Cassie Sievwright, Kristin Cullen and Samantha Ballesteros. Photo submitted

Smart students, dedicated mentors and a nurturing curriculum has led the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan School District to having 25 percent of the FIRST Tech Challenge teams at the state tournament this weekend in St. Paul.

Twelve District 196 teams are among the 48 that qualified for the competition for seventh- through 12th-grade students across the state.

The participants include three each from Eastview and Eagan high schools, two each from Apple Valley High and Dakota Hills Middle, one from Valley Middle and a team combined from different District 196 schools.

“They were just as shocked to hear they had won an award as they were when they realized they were going to state,” said Melissa Schwartz, coach of the first-year team CrushBots at Dakota Hills Middle School in Eagan. “Their hands were shaking and there were tears in their eyes.”

Similar reactions were shared by other students throughout the district as teams advanced by either having a high-scoring robot or earning a special award at a qualifying event for the state’s 169 teams.

Photo submitted Members of Valley Middle School’s FIRST Tech Challenge team Metal Melters are (clockwise from front) James Bond, Tasman Goff, Brock Martin, Garrett Gerlach and Adam Spaeth.
Members of Valley Middle School’s FIRST Tech Challenge team Metal Melters are (clockwise from front) James Bond, Tasman Goff, Brock Martin, Garrett Gerlach and Adam Spaeth. Photo submitted

The other qualifying teams are:

Eastview High — Blue Lightning, Short Circuits and Storm Warning

Eagan High — The Green Girls, The Q is Silqent and Sunburst

Apple Valley High — Iron Maidens and Attack on Robot

Dakota Hills Middle ­— CrushBots and SOLID

Valley Middle  — Metal Melters

Combined — The Fourth Dimension

District 196 has been focused in recent years on its STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum. The district has a K-12 STEM magnet school pathway, in addition to having other STEM-focused curriculum in other schools.

The district has also embraced the extracurricular programs offered by FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), which includes FIRST Lego Challenge, FIRST Tech and FIRST Robotics.

Dean Kamen, FIRST founder, said he created the program because he saw sports figures celebrated and recognized by nearly all, but people couldn’t name notable science and technology pioneers.

Anne Marie DeBoard, who helps coach two Apple Valley teams, calls FIRST Tech a sport of the mind.

She said some students who are new to FIRST Tech don’t know how to turn a screwdriver the correct way.

“They are rookies,” Schwartz said of her own team. “They didn’t know anything. They didn’t know how to build the robot. They didn’t know how to program in Java.”

During the season, the students are guided by tech savvy adult mentors ­— many of them from local companies like Uponor, Dakota Electric and Thomson Reuters — as they learn to design, engineer and build a robot in school classrooms, garages or basements.

Teams typically meet for a couple of hours a week, but increase their time together in the weeks before competitions.

They learn to work as a team, document their successes and failures, and articulate their ideas to judges or groups during public presentations.

“Those are really important skills, especially since many of these kids are on the introverted end of the spectrum,” DeBoard said.

“They have respect for each other,” Schwartz said of the CrushBots. “They have different strengths and weaknesses. One girl is better at programming, one in sketching, one at building and completing ideas. … They rely on other people to fill those voids.”

She said they have done a good job of having open minds in talking about success and failure without getting any emotion involved.

Learning from their mistakes is in the CrushBot’s mission statement.

“The best part is watching the kids have to work through the entire design process from start to finish,” said Metal Melters coach Brian Martin. “I enjoy watching them take the initial challenge, and then have to design, build, test, and repeat multiple times throughout the season. It is a great life experience seeing how things don’t always work with your first solution and that they continually have to adapt.”

In the competitions, robots earn points by completing certain tasks, such as placing a ball in a goal, lighting a beacon or performing some other task.

Schwartz said it has been difficult for her to find more challenging tasks for her team to complete, since they are able to learn so quickly.

“They are so thirsty for STEM,” she said. “They all want to be scientists.”

Schwartz said the team of 12- and 13-year-old girls relish in the fact that they are young and about two feet shorter than their high-school age competitors.

“They are very confident young women,” she said. “They are taking the middle school by storm. …  The sky’s the limit for these girls.”

Community

Teams also score points for conducting community outreach in a variety of ways, including offering demonstrations of their robot in schools or the local library, mentoring an elementary school’s FIRST Lego team or participating in STEM Day.

DeBoard said the typical team logs a combined 500 hours of community outreach.

Some students have testified at the state Capitol or even in Washington, D.C., to advocate for funding of STEM programs.

She said FIRST Tech teams in District 196 bring their robots to elementary schools in an effort to turn young students on to the activity.

“The kids leverage that pipeline to build more STEM students,” DeBoard said.

DeBoard said teams with girls on them are encouraging elementary-aged girls to get involved in STEM programs like FIRST Lego League.

The pipeline works the other way, too.

For some teams starting out in middle school, they are able to learn from high school teams that are more than willing to share their knowledge, according to DeBoard.

She said local companies are involved in FIRST because they see the value of the program. FIRST, which was founded in 1989, has been around long enough that it’s showing up on resumes hiring managers see for open positions.

She said when employers see FIRST on a resume, they know that the applicant can work in a team and has a certain skill set.

One wouldn’t be surprised if tech recruiters are found in the crowd this weekend in St. Paul.

But these students aren’t looking to find a job just yet. They are aiming to be one of the eight teams that will advance to the next level of competition – FIRST North Super Regional in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

More about Minnesota FIRST is at http://www.hightechkids.org.

Contact Tad Johnson at [email protected] or at twitter.com/editorTJ.