State-ly robotics

Local teams compete in Michigan state championships

MARQUETTE — As one local robotics coach said, taking part in the state finals can feel like going to “a different planet,” even after performing well in state-qualifying tournaments.

Several Upper Peninsula FIRST Tech Challenge teams took part in the Dec. 15-16 state championships at the Kellogg Arena in Battle Creek. The teams were North Star Academy’s Robogators, Bothwell Middle School’s Narwhals, Houghton Middle School’s SnowBots Blue and the Munising Electro Stangs.

The Robogators and SnowBots Blue were in the Franklin Division and the Narwhals and Electro Stangs competed in the Edison Division.

The FIRST acronym is: For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.

Being inspired and recognized is all well and good, but robotics also involves teamwork and community support.

Robogators coach Laura Farwell said in an email that the teams fielded “very respectable” robots in Battle Creek, but no team made it to the elimination matches.

“It’s important not only to experience a higher level of competition but to respond well when things don’t go your way, and learn as much as possible from the experience,” Farwell said.

For instance, the Robogators fielded rookie driver and seventh-grader Sam Kinney at the last minute when one of the drive team members took ill.

“Sam did so well that no one could have guessed a change was made,” Farwell said. “In fact, the team worked it out among themselves and then shared their excellent thinking and decision with everyone on board.”

She quoted Kinney as saying: “We were all sad for him but I was happy to step in for him and drive. I had not driven the robot for competition with the exception of a scrimmage at the beginning of the season.

“It was scary but it was also fun. You never know what can happen.”

Just making it to the state finals was a big deal.

Farwell pointed out that 80 percent of Michigan teams don’t make it to that level, and the 20 percent that do make for a high-caliber alliance and competition.

“The highly resourced teams often use CAD (Computer-Aided Design) to design their robots and prototype mechanisms, and one robot in our division had a 3-D printed mechanism analogous to a tape measure, about a foot in diameter with an internal spring, and it reached out to pick up and then place a relic outside the robot field,” Farwell said.

Narwhals coach Stephen Luty passed on some quotes from his team:

≤ Liam Rockwood, eighth grade: “In all, this season was inspiring and enjoyable.”

≤ Colton Bertucci, seventh grade: “States was cool. I got to meet a lot of new people.”

≤ Eighth-grader Elijah Croschere said his team was “kind of like family.”

Farwell also passed on comments from the Robogators:

≤ Torrey Cookman, eighth grade: “It was a blast! And now we have next year to look forward to.”

≤ Silas McNeally, eighth grade: “I thought it was a great experience, and all of us were lucky to be able to go. I had a lot of fun, and I think it was really good for the team, especially since several of us are moving on to the next level next year.”

Those two students plan to mentor the Robogators next year and join Cold Logic, the robotics teams for high school students in the Marquette area.

≤ Loyal Schneider, eighth grade: “It was exciting to be there, even after our team was eliminated. I got to see lots of incredible robots that could do many of the same things as our robot and more, except with completely different designs.”

≤ A fifth-grader at North Star Academy, Katie Cookman, plans to join the Robogators next year.

“I can’t wait until next year, when I’m a Robogator!” she said.

Farwell said many teams are mentored by employees from tech and manufacturing companies, plus robotics is integral to the schools’ cultures and prominence.

“The U.P. is in fast-growth mode and working to build that culture and prominence,” Farwell said. “The Robogators have great mentors, a conscious emphasis on a student-led team, some superb and involved parents, but we could do even more with a high ratio of mentors to students.”

Farwell noted that during the opening ceremonies, U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, said in a recorded message that robotics is the one varsity sport in which everyone can go pro.

FIRST robotics, she noted, also is supported by funding from the Michigan Department of Education and elected officials.

Competing in FIRST competitions won’t last forever for the young participants, but benefits can be realized down the line.

Farwell said FIRST alumni are eligible for $50 million in college scholarships annually as well as summer internships and future employment. Top executives from corporations who fund the FIRST Tech Challenge at the state and national levels speak at the events.

“Companies well recognize the value of the FIRST experience and want to hire students who’ve had that experience,” Farwell said.

Public support also is important.

Farwell said: “Our community enabled our entire season to happen — from the tools, parts and supplies needed to compete at the state level and to attend two tournaments plus the state finals.”

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Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is