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Derek Plautz, Stephen Spilman and Logan Taggart plan how to properly route wires most efficiently on the robot.

WDC robotics team competes at Duluth contest

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UPDATE:

The WDC Terminators robotics teamed placed 50th out of 57 teams at the regional robotics competition last weekend in Duluth.

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The robot, nicknamed Gladys, suffered damage that required the team to sit out three rounds.

Although it would have been great to earn a higher ranking, Terminators co-coach Mike Shrode said, the team accomplished the three goals it created at the start of start of the season: 1. Build a robot that could score goals on its own. 2. Build a robot that could function autonomously. 3. Finish the robot in time to test it before the competition.

ORIGINAL STORY:

While the hockey and basketball teams spent the winter competing with their bodies, a team of Wadena-Deer Creek underclassmen were busy building a different kind of athlete for a different kind of competition.

The WDC Terminators, the school's robotics team made up of eight 9th and 10th graders, will take a robot they built over six weeks to a regional competition this weekend in Duluth. Now that construction time has expired, the robot - nicknamed Gladys - is wrapped in plastic. After practicing Thursday, the team will spend Friday and Saturday seeing how well Gladys can handle picking up, passing, throwing and blocking exercise balls in a battle royale against 57 other robots.

"The humans aren't the ones competing," said Mike Shrode, an engineering and technology teacher who co-coaches the Terminators with Shane Snyder, the district's technology facilitator.

Engineers from NASA and elite universities designed the "Aerial Ascent" game, in which teams score points by getting their robots to score goals. Schools work in randomly assigned groups of three and also gain points for teamwork.

If they win the regional competition, one of 98 around the world, WDC would earn a trip in late April to the international FIRST Robotics Competition in St. Louis. In the first three years of the program, WDC hasn't advanced, but Shrode said this is their most "operational robot" yet.

Ethan Benson, a 10th grader who built much of Gladys' hardware, said he's confident heading into regionals.

"We've got a pretty good functioning robot," Benson said. "It picks it up, blocks it very well and it can catch pretty well."

Benson joined the team because he like working with his hands. "I like taking ideas and making them real," he said.

Other students focused on the software side, figuring out how to program Gladys to play the game properly.

Shrode said the project requires "a high level of creativity," since there is no right answer to the problem.

"Every robot is going to be a little bit different," he said, "but they're all trying to do the same thing."

Students in the Minnesota High School League sanctioned activity are eligible for thousands of dollars in college scholarships and, if they enter the engineering field as a career, can secure high incomes.

"They get into good colleges. They get good jobs," Shrode said. "It's a real world experience."

It's also an expensive program. The entrance fee to regionals alone costs $5,000. A University of Minnesota grant will end this year, Shrode said, so the team is "going to have to partner with some local companies" to continue.

Kern Lasers has already helped out, donating a 3D printer the Terminators used to build some parts for Gladys. Shrode's class is also using the printer to develop an adaptive bicycle pedal for special needs kids.

To raise money, the team sells LED light bulbs. They cost $7 for Wadena and Otter Tail Power electricity customers. If they ask for a rebate, Todd-Wadena Electric customers can get the same price. Otherwise, they run $10 each.

The bulbs come with a 10-year warranty and last up to 20 years.

"The LED technology is pretty sick," Shrode said.

Last Thursday in Shrode's classroom, Gladys' birthplace, students tinkered with last year's robot, which was designed to throw a frisbee. They plan to present it to potential donors as an example of the group's work.

First-year team member Alysha Randall said she's had fun trying something new during the doldrums of winter. The freshman who worked on Gladys' wiring said she plans to pursue veterinary medicine. Studying engineering is her backup plan.

Sophomore Derek Garcia, who's been a team member three years, said he wants to start his own company after getting a mechanical engineering degree.

The Terminators, he said, "have an interesting social dynamic ... We're all a little bit different."

To see the results of the regional competition Duluth, visit wadenapj.com on Sunday.

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