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Robotics tournament draws interest from area school districts
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Over 25 teams from eight school districts attended St. John-Hudson’s first robotics competition Tuesday. Members of the Hesston team were on hand to help with the logistics of keeping score and reffing numerous matches. - photo by Veronica Coons

ST. JOHN - To the uninitiated, a robotics tournament like the one hosted by USD 350 St. John Hudson Tuesday morning looks like chaos. Held in the meeting room at the Stafford County Annex, tables topped with robots fashioned from mechanical components that resemble Erector Sets of a by-gone era, and surrounded by eager and engaged teams of teens filled every corner of the room. On a stage at the south end, a square-shaped competition arena made of metal and Plexiglass stood. On three sides, metal posts about three-feet high line the perimeter, and inside, levels are stepped in Olympic order, and all around blue-and-red disks and yellow balls are carefully set in a variety of configurations. 

Teams approach the arena with their robots. Four at a time will compete. Boys and girls strategically place their robots, then begin fiddling with essentially video game controllers. 

On one side of the arena , a wall of “flag poles” with two-sided metal flags stand. Behind them is an expanse of black netting. This is to catch the balls some of the robots will shoot at the flags in an effort to turn them. But first, referees check to make sure all is in order. 

A match lasts a total of two minutes. The first 15 seconds of autonomous, or code that students write to program their robot and their controllers. The better the code, the higher the autonomous score. For the next one minute, 45 seconds, teams direct their robots by remote control to seek, pick up and move the objects in the arena to their appropriate place. Disks are picked up and set on poles, and balls are collected and shot at flags. Some robots are designed to more than one task, and others are specialized. The more successes, the higher the score for each robot. 

To make things even more interesting, each robot belongs to a different team, with two assigned blue, and two assigned red. Students that have never worked together must team up to maximize their score. 

St. John-Hudson robotics coach Andrea Sayler-Siefkes has been taking students to competition for the past three years. Last year, the team competed at state. 

“It’s a huge learning experience,” Andrea said. “We had a lot of community donors who wanted us to host a competition here. It has been tremendous amount of work.”

Luckily, thanks to help from the Hesston team, Siefkes wasn’t on her own. Hesston has been competing for seven years, and was happy to help with the logistics of running and reffing the tournament. They brought seven of their 22 robots to the match. Some schools brought as many or more, while others brought just one. 

Josh Meyer is the superintendent at St. John - Hudson. This was his first experience of robotics competition. 

“It’s fast paced and there is no downtime,” he said. “It’s just go, go, go.” 

He had the opportunity to judge their design books and got to see how through trial and error, the designs changed over time. He looks forward to holding additional competitions in the future. 

Schools taking part included Little River, Hesston, Maize, McPherson, Nickerson, St. John-Hudson, and Great Bend.

Teams from USD 431 Hoisington and USD 428 Great Bend came to observe. Robotics teachers Karisa Cowan, Hoisington, and Jake Hofflinger, Great Bend, wanted students to get a feel for the competition, as both schools will be taking teams to competition in the coming weeks. Hoisington High School students will attend their first official competition soon. 

Members of the Great Bend High School Robotic Club brought one robot to the competition Tuesday. It was their first time at an event. Thanks to the district’s implementation of Project Lead the Way, it was easy to split off a robotics club for students with an interest, Hofflinger said. The VEX platform is included in Project Lead the Way, so many districts have adopted it, and resulting competitions have helped drive interest further. The GBHS club, which meets after school, has worked concessions at sporting events to raise funds to purchase additional components, with hopes of being able to build better robots. 

Throughout the morning elementary school students filed in to watch qualifying rounds. Early afternoon, elimination rounds continued until shortly before 2 p.m. Then, the top eight ranked teams competed for trophies. 

Results, courtesy of Seifkes, were as follows:

Maize Team 67101 B won Tournament Champion, Skills Champion, and Excellence Awards;  Hesston Team 7862X won Tournament Champion; and Hesston Team 7862F won Design Award.