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Luverne teen shines with 4-H robotics project

Julie Buntjer/Daily Globe Ben Fick, a member of the County K-9's 4-H Club in Luverne, earned grand champion robotics project at the Rock County Fair. The fair continues through Saturday in Luverne.

LUVERNE -- In another year, Ben Fick will be gearing up for college with plans to pursue a career in engineering. Though he isn't quite certain which area of engineering he'll focus on, one thing is for sure -- his years as a Rock County 4-H member steered him toward a career of building and design.

Fick earned grand champion on his robotics project at the Rock County Fair Wednesday in Luverne. It's the fourth consecutive year he has earned a Minnesota State Fair trip in robotics -- a rather nice streak, considering the 4-H project area was just introduced four years ago.

A 17-year-old Luverne resident and member of the County K-9's 4-H Club, Fick earned top honors this year for his Punchbot robot, a piece he built, tested and tweaked over the course of the past two months. The robot works by reading simulated punch cards, much like the giant computer systems read punch cards when they first were introduced.

"This is sort of a nostalgia type thing," said Fick, demonstrating how the card is swiped through a reader on the top of the robot. The robot then uses the data to move in the appropriate direction, powered by six AA batteries.

Fick's interest in robotics stemmed from a display at the Minnesota State Fair several years ago. He had earned a trip to the Great Minnesota Get-Together in food preservation but, during the encampment, he spent a lot of time at a robotics exploration display.

Around that time, Lego introduced a robotics kit teachers could purchase for educational classroom projects.

"I think that's really what got the 4-H robotics program started," said Fick.

His first 4-H robot was "a simple one," he said, adding that the Tribot was constructed by following directions in a kit.

"The year after that, I started getting more advanced," said Fick. While visiting a book store he found many new ideas for design and programming, which only fueled his desire to build more complicated robots.

His Punchbot robot this year is a Lego Mindstorms NXT model that has been altered from the original design specifications.

"I would try one design and then have a test program to test out the weight limits," he explained. "Eventually, I lowered the design -- originally it was a lot higher -- and then I used parts from another kit."

Fick's Punchbot will be on display in the 4-H building at the Rock County Fair through Saturday, and then it will go to the Minnesota State Fair in late August for judging there.

Last year, he said there were only 15 to 20 entries in the robotics project at the state fair.

"I have to say, a lot of them have been a lot better than mine," Fick said. He earned blue ribbons in his first two years of state competition, and earned a purple ribbon last year.

Fick said he likes the "openness" of the robotics project because, "you can do pretty much anything you want."

"You'll never see anything that's like anyone else's -- it's whatever you can think up," he added.

Next year, Fick is planning to test his own creativity with a robot he hopes to build and design on his own.

In addition to his robotics project, Fick also exhibited a book on waterfowl that he compiled over the past three years for his Exploring the Environment project area, and entered a banana-chocolate cake in the foods project. He has one sister, Erin, who entered 4-H projects in photography, fashion revue and food revue.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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