Superior hosts first robotics tournament


Are you ready for some robots?

Superior Middle School is gearing up to host a regional FIRST LEGO League tournament Saturday. The day of robot challenges and animal-themed projects highlights the creativity of students.

"I went last year and it was nothing like I thought it would be," said Brenda Meyer, one of the volunteer coaches for the Maple School District's robotics program. "It was run like a sporting event."

Everyone is invited to stop by the Superior Middle School cafeteria from noon to 3 p.m. Saturday to catch the robots in action — moving Lego animals, tripping levers, interacting with a gecko wall and rotating a "milk" machine.

During practice after school Nov. 3, members of Superior Middle School's Lego Legion and Bot Squad teams tweaked robot programming, assembled new attachments and immersed themselves in project research.

"It's just fun working with Legos and solving problems," said Ronald Lane, a sixth grader with Lego Legion.

Bot Squad members Connor Olson and Kyle Kittelson sent their robot on a mission to move a shark tank to a specific square, knock over a raised fence and snatch a pink Lego pig. They tested positions and programs, trying to shave time. During the tournament, each team has 2½ minutes to perform as many robot challenges as they can, racking up points for each they complete.

Kittleson joined the program last year at the urging of a friend.

"Now it's what I want to do when I get older," the eighth grader said. "Be a robotic engineer; any type of engineer."

Although programming is cool, Olson said, he appreciates the teamwork aspect of the robotics program.

"It's really just the friends you make," he said.

"Our robot is currently a shark killer," said Logan Hubbard, a member of Lego Legion, because it knocks the shark in a tank over during transport.

Teachers Stephanie Francis and Mike Shlangen coach the Superior teams. While the adults are there to supervise, students provide the direction.

"We step back and if a project board or presentation board needs to be made, if a challenge needs to be built, they do it," Francis said. "It amazes me when you step back and let a student, a young student, do things, the level that they can achieve."

For their projects this year, Bot Squad is targeting an invasive species, the sea lamprey. Their solution is a sponge filter with ultraviolet light for the ballast tanks in ships that sail the Great Lakes. The treatment would strain out eggs and sterilize any that make it through, according to sixth grader Harold Tu. He thought the filter/light combo would also impact another invasive, the spiny water flea.

Lego League has their eye on cat litter. It's a huge expense for animal shelters, Hubbard said. Their team proposes a recycling machine that turns sawdust, corn and paper into cat litter.

Rural robotics

In the Maple School District, volunteers run Northwestern Robotics Inc., which was founded by Kevin and Stacy Knaack.

"My son was on the team last year," said Angel Carlson of Poplar, a parent volunteer. Although she doesn't know anything about robots, it's clear the program is a winner.

"They're learning more than robotics," Carlson said. "It teaches them to be a team, how to work together" and respect each other.

Maple's three teams focused on projects Thursday night at Northwestern Middle School. The New A.G.E. (Automaton Gadget Engineers) team brought in a wildlife care coordinator from Wildwoods for a presentation on the dangers loons face when interacting with humans.

"They're looking for solutions," Meyer said.

Members of the all-girl team, Cheesy Unicorn Peepers, assembled a project board about service dogs.

"We're finding ways that animals can help," said sixth grader Anna Deye.

The Recognized Order of Building Outstanding Technology (R.O.B.O.T.S.) team transformed into bees to educate others about the winged insects' importance.

"We want them to know about colony collapse disorder killing bees," said sixth grader Asher Gilderman. Pesticides kill bees too, and they're losing habitat to human construction.

"We want them to know about the effects and that you can help them," Gilderman said.

R.O.B.O.T.S. members visited area beekeepers and are researching grant opportunities to fund a beehive or bee-friendly garden at one of the Maple schools.

"Save the bees," said Jay Ahlin, a sixth grader.

Close competition

Both Superior and Maple students have been involved in FIRST LEGO League robotics for three years. The Superior team took part in regional competition in Duluth their first year, but there were too many Minnesota teams signed up last year for them to take part. One Maple team drove down to La Crosse last fall to take part in a regional competition. It was the closest statewide option, Stacy Knaack said.

Francis and Shlangen started talking to league coordinators last fall.

"They decided to come here and support us with a regional competition," Francis said. "It was surreal for us, getting that acceptance."

It also offered all the local teams a chance to shine.

"Now everyone's the competition team," Gilderman said.

A total of 10 teams will compete in Saturday's event, Francis said, including two that were going to go to La Crosse, but chose Superior because it was closer. Although some regional events attract as many as 30 teams, 10 is a respectable number for the first year.

"We're really excited," Francis said.

The young engineers will earn points from the robot games, their project, how well they exhibit Lego FIRST core values and how they react to a problem-solving exercise. The top three teams from Saturday's tournament will move on to sectional competition, with state competition slated for February in Janesville.

For more information, visit or visit the Northwestern Robotics, Inc. Facebook page.