Strong season for young robotics team

Posted on: May 9, 2022

When the world of FIRST robotics powered down to wait out the COVID pandemic in 2021, Delano’s Orange Crush team used the respite to rebuild.

The fruits of that behind-the-scenes training were evident this spring, as the team resumed competition with a March regional in Iowa before finishing as one of the top teams in Minneapolis in April.

“Many teams suffered from last year because students did not return,” said Sue Duberstein, who coaches the Orange Crush Robotics team along with Brad Felknor. “There were a few teams - it actually shocked us - that are not around anymore. For them it was very bad, but for us it was very beneficial to have last year just to get everybody up to speed.”

The extra prep time was needed because six seniors departed from the team after the 2020 season was truncated due to COVID’s arrival, leaving a collection of mostly eighth-graders with little to no experience.

“So we took last year as a time to train on how to build a robot,” said Duberstein. “We divided the younger part of the team into two groups and had them each build a robot for the 2020 competition so they could learn what it is to build a FIRST robot.”

Last week, basking in the glow of a successful 2022 campaign that culminated with their robot ranked as the top climber in Minneapolis, a handful of now-ninth-graders saw the benefits of a quiet 2021.

“It was a good year to play catch up because we lost six seniors, and they were pretty much all the brains of the operation in 2020,” said Tatum Workman. 

“It was pretty helpful. We were able to learn some things more in depth to improve our skills,” agreed Michael Simons. 

“I had a chance to hone my programming. That’s the reason our robot was draining shots from any distance,” said Russell Hynes to a chorus of laughter from his teammates.

Iowa regional
After beginning to organize in October and starting the official building season in January, the 18-member Orange Crush team finally returned to the playing field in Cedar Falls, Iowa, on March 25-26. Long on preparation but short on experience, the group went 5-6 in this year’s “Rapid React” competition, ranking 22nd out of 45 teams.

“Even though we were ranked 22nd, overall we had an excellent climber and we were chosen to be on one of the final alliances,” said Duberstein. “We played in the quarterfinals and lost so we didn’t go any further, but it’s always a feather in your cap when you’re chosen to be a final alliance member.”

Each competition challenges teams to work together in a three-on-three format. For the first 15 seconds the robots have to be programmed to run autonomously, after which a drive team takes over. The objective is generally to place objects, shoot them into a target, and finally climb. After a set of preliminary rounds, the top eight teams each choose a pair of alliance partners for the playoffs. The Orange Crush machine was an attractive pick because its ability to climb was among the best of the robots present.

Immediately after returning from Iowa, the team began to apply the lessons learned in the heat of competition. In preparation for the next regional in Minneapolis, the already good climbing mechanism was improved even more.

“It’s surprising how what you thought was a good idea can change so drastically after you actually go to one of those regionals,” said Hynes. “A lot of things improved between the Iowa regional and the Minneapolis regional.”

“We knew what we had to do,” said Workman.

Minneapolis regional
In Minneapolis the improved Orange Crush machine was a force to be reckoned with. It was ranked the top climber out of 55 robots, with unparalleled ability to climb a set of horizontal bars.

“We had a set of stationary hooks and another set of hooks that would tip back and extend, so it would lift itself up,” explained Workman. “We’d tip the whole robot, lift it up slightly more to get the stationary hooks on, and then unhook with the extendable ones, tilt them, extend, rinse and repeat.”

In preliminary competition, Orange Crush posted a record of 7-2-1 to rank ninth. As the top eight seeds chose their alliance partners, including partners from the top eight, Delano moved up in the rankings to become the captain of the No. 6 alliance.

“That’s not something, since I’ve been a coach, that we’ve done – been our own alliance captain in the finals,” said Duberstein. “We chose Elk River and Eden Prairie to go with us because we had been scouting for all the matches. What they could do fit best with what we could do.”

The alliance led by Orange Crush went on to defeat the No. 3 seed alliance in the quarterfinals before losing to the No. 2 seed alliance in the semifinals. The team’s overall playoff record was 2-2.

Skill-building activity
Rookie Orange Crush team member Bryson Roepke, a ninth-grader, said he will definitely return for another year of robotics.

“I just liked seeing a bin of old parts being turned into a robot that can shoot and climb,” he said.

Simons, also a freshman, said the experience is fulfilling from beginning to end.

“There’s just a big sense of satisfaction that you put so many hours into this robot, and then you see it go onto the field and win the match,” he said. “It’s just a good sense of accomplishment, and you really learn a lot.”

Duberstein said students gain skills that they can take with them into their professional lives after high school.

“Everyone can go pro,” she said. “We had six seniors graduate a couple of years ago, and five of them went into engineering.”

Because robotics is hands-on by nature, students learn trouble-shooting, design skills and how to use various professional computer design programs.

“It’s good for learning problem-solving skills,” said ninth-grader Justin Noor. “There’s a lot of trial and error that has to be done.”

Students also hone their presentation skills as they approach area organizations and companies for fundraising purposes.

Duberstein said there are jobs for students of all interests, and not all are focused on the robot itself. 

“We are in great need of team members who want to run social media, run marketing, run a business,” she said. “We have to raise $25,000 a year all on our own. We need team members who maybe don’t want to do anything with the robot but who do want to run a business or do community outreach.”

With confidence generated by a strong season behind them, young Orange Crush members are looking forward to what will hopefully be uninterrupted competition ahead.

“I could not have any more pride over these kids than I do. I think every one of them is spectacular and they blow me away with what they are able to accomplish,” said Duberstein.

“It’s a good time,” said Workman. “It’s fun getting out there with buddies and just doing something you all like.”

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