Students gear up for competition

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Joe was feeling under the weather Thursday, but his teammates had a plan to boost his energy. The LEGO robot was plugged in for some juice while its creators had a snack.

"Joe has his own personality," said Northwestern Middle School seventh-grader Paige Tuura. "He needs his beauty rest."

The Glitches robotics team technically consists of five humans, but Joe makes six.

"He's a person to us, another member of the group," said seventh-grader Loreena Trump.

Don't ever call him Bob, they warned. If you do, Joe tends to misbehave.

The Glitches are one of four local robotics teams heading to sectional competition this weekend in Janesville. In all, five middle school teams advanced following Superior's regional LEGO FIRST Robotics tournament in November, including Northwestern Robotics Inc.'s Glitches and Water Wizards, and Superior Middle School's Bot Squad and Lego Legion.

Formed this fall, the groups spend two nights a week programming and engineering a robot that can perform up to 17 specific tasks. But that's just one cog of the competition.

Each team has to give a presentation on a solution to a real-world problem. This year, they're dealing with water issues. The Glitches are proposing an industrial felt sleeve containing sensors that would fit over oil pipelines to contain leaks. Brother team the Water Wizards is looking at ways to make shock hydro dialysis, a method of desalinization, cost-effective.

The middle-school students also have to model core values, including teamwork and communication, while performing a specific task at competition.

The Glitches, an all-female crew comprised of robot veterans and newbies, walked away with an award for their core values in November.

"They're all different personalities and they've said a few times they would not have been friends in school," said Glitches coach Angela Deye. "Their differences make them better as a team, make them stronger."

Students specialize in certain areas such as programming or engineering, but do a lot of cross-training.

Water Wizards members Donald Carlson and Asher Gilderman tweaked their still-nameless robot Thursday to tackle a few of the easiest challenges. Their strategy is to perfect the easy ones first, then add on. Little factors like the tilt of a table, the amount of juice in a battery or the weight of attachments can lead to on-the-fly programming tweaks.

"A lot of trial and error, that's the name of the game," said Water Wizards coach Kory Gilderman.

The programming is crucial, said Asher Gilderman, because there's no joystick.

Although adult coaches are on hand, they don't have the same robotic skills the students have. Thekids are the experts.

"They know more about this than I have discovered in four years of watching," said Stacy Knaack, who launched the Northwestern Robotics program.

The program isn't run by the Maple school district, although Northwestern Middle School offers the robotics teams a place to practice. It's supported by business and individual donations.

Knaack launched the nonprofit Northwestern Robotics Inc. with her husband to offer a STEM-based activity to kids. The program also teaches them real-world skills like how to socialize, face down frustration and work together.

Although the couple hopes to step back and hand the nonprofit off to a new leader, Knaack is committed to seeing it continue. It means too much to the kids to let go, she said.

Sadie Doty, a seventh-grader who's been with the Northwestern Robotics program since it began, said she joins every year because she likes seeing friends.

"It's amazing, it's really fun," Tuura said.

And being able to troubleshoot and overcome challenges is very rewarding, Asher Gilderman said.

Right now, the teams — both human and robot members — are setting their sights on Janesville, where 48 teams will battle for the 'bot title.