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The ’bots are back in town

Sixth graders Aubrey Guttormson, let, and Julian Robbins pull apart their Lego robot Wednesday at Superior Middle School in order to reassemble a shorter version. Students at the school are busy programming, building and researching for the Nov. 18 regional LEGO FIRST robotics competition in Superior. Jed Carlson/

The robots are coming.

Teams from Superior and Maple schools are busy programming, building and researching for the LEGO FIRST Superior Regional Tournament on Nov. 18. To ensure they get their chance to shine, adult volunteers are needed to judge the competition, check teams in and set up tournament tables.

Superior Middle School hosted its first robotics competition last year to fill a gap.

"We’re really cut off from the rest of the state," said SMS science teacher and robotics coach Mike Schlangen. "All the other competitions are down in the southeast part of the state."

When Superior launched its robotics program in 2014, students competed in a Duluth scrimmage and brought home a few awards.

"We were so excited to do so much more that second year," said SMS science teacher and robotics coach Stephanie Francis.

In 2015, the Superior team wasn’t allowed to compete in Minnesota. Francis said they found out about that rule too late to sign up for a Wisconsin tournament

"It’s like having a baseball team not going to the World Series, although they could have," Schlangen said. "It’s a huge let down for the kids."

So the school decided to launch its own. Last year, nine teams traveled to Superior for the inaugural robot rumble.

Nineteen are on tap for this year’s event, including Superior’s LEGO Legion and Bot Squad.

In addition to programming and building a robot that can tackle a series of challenges, the students are judged on their teamwork and a group project. This year, they must come up with an innovative solution to a water-based problem.

"We feel it’s really going to be to our benefit that we have so many local experts on the topic," Francis said.

Standing around the challenge table Wednesday, members of LEGO Legion discussed whether to scrap their robot and rebuild a shorter one, and which attachments would be needed.

"We’re at the starting phase," said eighth grader Owen Schilling. "We started with the mechanical things just yesterday, so we haven’t done much programming yet. What we’ve been working on is strategy for each of the parts."

In the classroom, members of Bot Squad looked through robot components and discussed their project. The only eighth grader on the team, Connor Olson, said he’s been teaching his younger teammates and giving them their roles.

"I’m trying to be the best person on the team I can be," Connor said.

Mentorship is something that comes with the territory.

"The eighth graders and seventh graders when I joined were really good about letting us do things and I became, actually, one of the main builders along with my friend, so I want to make sure we reproduce that type of feeling for these sixth graders," Owen said.

The project component also allows them to dig deep into local issues.

"You can learn a lot about problems that, say, we’re facing around here and like what we did last year, we did invasive species in the Great Lakes," Connor said. "This is a way to teach other people in our area about these big problems we’re facing."

More than 50 students tried out for the robotics program in Superior this fall. Only 20 were chosen.

"It’s great to see the interest that kids have," Francis said. "And they don’t show up just because they love programming or love LEGOs. They really show up I think because they’ve heard from others this is kind of an after-school place they can use creativity and brainstorm and problem-solve."

Sixth grader Julian Robbins said he enjoys creating, problem solving and building. That’s just one perk of the program.

"You come for the robotics, but you stay for the whole experience," Owen said. "The fun part really is having a lot of good people with you on a team … then the cherry on top is the robotics part, kind of."

Taking their teamwork to the next level hinges on having a local competition. Adult volunteers willing to help during the Nov. 18 event, which runs from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., can email mike.

Everyone is invited to watch the students compete; admission is free. Robot challenges begin after lunch.