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In third year, WHS Robotics a team effort

Peter Scholtes (from left), Keith Ailts and Josue Fraga are among the 15 Worthington High School Robotics Team members to recently compete in a regional contest in Duluth. Joining them is team member Richard Owen. (Julie Buntjer/Daily Globe)

WORTHINGTON -- If there was an award for consistency, the Worthington High School Robotics team's 2013 creation would likely have been deemed the cream of the crop. That's great news, considering the team is only in its third year of competition.

The First Robotics program is relatively new in the region but, as is the case in Worthington High School, it's revving up rapidly. The 15-member team and its robot competed March 6-9, at the regional First Robotics contest at Duluth, garnering 26th place of 99 teams. In addition to teams from Minnesota, the regional contest had out-of-state competitors as well, including a team from Hawaii.

"Right now there are more robotics teams in Minnesota than there are hockey teams," said team mentor Richard Owen, a substitute teacher in District 518 with experience in building his own remote control airplanes, in addition to building full-size aircraft.

"We're the third largest state for First Robotics," added team member Peter Scholtes.

Robotics teams must pay a $6,000 registration fee to compete in the contest. For the price, they also receive a kit containing an assortment of robot parts.

"You have to build it all from scratch," said lead robot builder Keith Ailts.

While the newest teams often use the parts they're sent, the WHS team has participated in the competition long enough to know what they want and need.

"We decided to use a lot of our own parts instead of the ones that were supplied to us," Owen said. "We had specific goals we wanted to accomplish with our robot, so the parts we chose were the best to meet our goals."

Each year, the robotics competition requires teams to build a machine that can do certain tasks. This year, the machine had to be able to throw a Frisbee and climb a ladder. Last year, robots were built to be able to play basketball.

In competition, three teams and their robots must work together against three opposing robots to score the most points.

Teams had just six weeks to build their robot and, as a testament to their dedication to robotics, seven of the 15 WHS robotics team members logged more than 100 hours each in that span of time. They met up after school, sometimes working until midnight, and logged lots of hours on the weekends. Owen and fellow team mentor Nick Mast, a teacher at both Prairie Elementary and Worthington Middle School, guided them along the way.

"Our goal this year was to be a consistent scoring robot," Owen said. "We weren't the highest scoring, but we put points on the board every single match. In a way, that helped us and hurt us. We were consistently right around 20 points."

Team members, ranging from freshmen to seniors, were tasked with the 109-pound robot's design, engineering, building and programming.

"I enjoyed the building and design part," said Ailts, a WHS senior. "The coolest thing is when you have people that come up with ideas and they draw it, and then say, 'Here, build that.'"

"It's cool when it all comes together -- that it came from paper to now actually working," he added.

"I'm a big geek, so I like problem solving, how to design this and code that," added Josue Fraga, a first-year member of the WHS robotics team. Three years ago, he signed at the top of the list when the school worked to form a team, but scheduling conflicts in each of the last two years prevented him from being involved.

This year, the WHS robotics team was able to test its robot in advance of the regional meet, when a full-scale model court was set up at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter. At that event, the WHS team's robot was the only one that worked right out of the gate.

"By week three, we had a moving, working robot that we then had time to fix problems with," said Owen, adding that the teamwork and dedication to the project really helped the Worthington students.

Even at the regional contest, some robots still weren't working.

"We got paired with robots, some didn't work and some didn't even have wheels on them," Owen said.

Now that the competition is done, team members are already getting organized for next year. That includes dismantling last year's robot for parts -- they use their most recent robot for presentations to help get sponsorships to keep the robotics program going.

"I like robotics because it's a great way to use your brain and hang out with a lot of fun friends," said Scholtes, who has been on the robotics team since it was established. "I met quite a few people who are now my good friends that I would have never really hung out with before robotics."

Scholtes said First Robotics promotes gracious professionalism, and that's what he enjoys about the competitions. They're not cut-throat, but rather an opportunity for team members to help each other out, and help other teams out as well.

"It's 'Hey, something's wrong with your robot. What can I do to help?" he said.

"At the competition it's really neat to see all of the teams that are there to help you if you need it," Ailts added. "I think it's a great program. I'm going to really miss it next year."

More than half of the WHS robotics team members are seniors this year, and they are already working to recruit their replacements.

"We do have a lot of interest coming next year from the junior high," said team mentor Owen. Worthington Middle School has recently established a Tech Club, and it is hoped some of those students would join the First Robotics team when they advance to the ninth grade.

Joining Ailts, Scholtes and Fraga on the WHS robotics team this year were Jacob Prins, Mitchell Shreiner, Caleb Wede, Dalton Kruse, Desalegn Zemenfes, Wenshi Chen, Esteban Fraga, Bridghid Hagerty, McKenzie Kruse, Jason Meyer, Tony Villegas and Eloa Cook.

Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.

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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