By Starrla Cray
DELANO, MN The FIRST Robotics Competition has been described as “the varsity sport for the mind,” and for Delano High School participants, the thrill is unlike any other.
“This is my first year on the team,” 10th grader Allison Sandlass said. Her older sister, Cara, who is now studying to become an engineer, had been on it before she graduated.
“I went to a competition, and it was fascinating,” Sandlass said.
Delano High School administration, in cooperation with Sil-Pro Medical Manufacturing Solutions in Delano, initiated the program at DHS three years ago.
“We pay for the program in its entirety,” Sil-Pro president Kevin Carver said, adding that the company also mentors students during practice.
Since Jan. 8, the group of about 12 talented ninth-12th graders has been meeting from 3 to 6 p.m. three days a week.
They’ve been designing and building an intricate robot for the North Star Regional competition at the University of Minnesota Mariucci Arena Thursday through Saturday, March 31-April 2.
“Every year, they come up with a new challenge,” Sandlass said. “Last year, the robots had to play soccer.”
This year’s robots have to place inflatable tubes and symbols on pegs, in order to make up the FIRST logo. In the last 10 seconds, a miniature robot will climb a 10-foot pole, and the first one to make it to the top earns the team an extra 30 points, according to robotics coach Joe Finn.
The top three teams from the regional competition advance to nationals.
“People are getting fired up,” Finn said. “It’s good to watch the kids thinking like that, outside the box.”
DHS senior Joe Janas, who joined the team last year, said it’s a great opportunity to learn through experience.
“It’s kind of a real-world application,” Janas said. “There are a pretty wide variety of skills involved, and it’s good for people interested in math, programming, or electrical work.”
Janas, who is thinking about going to school for mechanical engineering, said he enjoys the challenge of creating a robot for competition.
“You learn as you go,” he said.
Carver helped start the robotics team in Delano because he felt it was a fun way for students to explore a variety of engineering fields.
“It’s important that we don’t lose sight of the importance of manufacturing, creating, and producing,” he said.
The FIRST program started in 1992 with 28 teams in a New Hampshire high school gym. Now, it has reached more than 150,000 students nationwide.
Carver hopes that the robotics program will encourage students to pursue productive careers in science and technology.
“Whether building a robot for fun or a machine for a business, it’s the same skill set and type of thinking,” he said.
A secondary goal for Sil-Pro is to possibly recruit future employees.
“We’re heavy into automation here, and we always want to find talented people,” Carver said.
In previous years, practices were at Sil-Pro, but this year, they were moved to the high school in hopes of generating more interest.
“I think it seems to be going well,” Carver said.
There are many aspects students can participate in based on their interests.
Some are involved in the design work, while others are constructing a mock arena to practice using the robot.
Team members also develop programming skills, document material purchases, and scout for compatible teams to pair with at the tournament.
“I think it’s a great learning tool,” Finn said. “We’re hoping to get more kids involved next year.”
Carver encourages interested community members to attend the competition in March, or become a mentor during the team practices.
“It’s a fun program where you build a machine to play a sport,” Carver said. “It’s a neat deal.”
For more information about the team, contact Delano High School at (763) 972-3365.
To learn more about the FIRST Robotics Competition, go to www.usfirst.org.
The FIRST Robotics Competition is a unique way for students to build skills they can use throughout life. Here are a few facts about the program:
• FIRST stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.”
• The 2011 FIRST scholarship program will give students more than $14 million for college.
• According to a recent study, FIRST participants are more than twice as likely than other students to volunteer in their communities, and are three times more likely to major in engineering. (www.usfirst.org)