Reed City Robotics team refueling for upcoming season

REED CITY – It may be the off-season for the Reed City High School robotics team, but students are gearing up now for the unknown challenge that lies ahead.

The robotics team, comprised of around 20 students, focuses on programming, designing and constructing a

mechanical object which will be required to perform some feat in competition.

Beginning its seventh year participating in For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) robotics program, RCHS science teacher and mentor Brad Smith said the program was created by Segway inventor Dean Kamen. Disappointed with low numbers of kids interested in the fields of science and technology, Smith said Kamen decided to find something to grow interest in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields for students.

In January, an announcement will be made with the specifications for what the student-built robot will be required to do, Smith said. That is when he and fellow science teacher and team mentor Jestin VanScoyoc provide guidance as the students take over their project.

“As mentors, we have a really hands-off approach and let the students lead the way,” Smith said. “During that six-week building period, they have to design, program and build whatever project is outlined for the competition. That’s when it becomes a hands-on experience for the students, and they have to do real-world problem solving.

“From programming to construction, the students are constantly revising and revamping,” he said. “The students stick with it, though, and make sure it works and works the way it is supposed to.”

RCHS junior Jade Ebels said she joined the team because she was generally interested in robotics.

“It sounded like something that was cool to try and I checked it out,” she said.

As one of the returning team members this year, Ebels said she enjoys helping the team succeed.

“The best part is being able to learn how a robot works and see it in action and know that I had a part in it,” she said.

Ebels believes one of the most challenging parts of getting the robot to specifications and to work properly is the computer programming. However, designing and constructing the robot is just as difficult.

“Having to start with nothing and getting it built with so many pieces is truly the hardest part,” she said.

Team captain Lorenz Hoernel, another returning team member, said he became interested in robotics because he saw it as a way to challenge himself.

“I didn’t know a lot about coding when I first started,” he said. “Then, I learned what it was all about, and I still wanted to learn more about it. The fun part is when you start with nothing and end up with something like (we built last year). It is really satisfying.”

There are times, Hoernel admitted, when things do not run smoothly.

“There are hours and hours of troubleshooting from the beginning to the end, and then seeing that it works out in the end is a great feeling,” he said. “It can get frustrating until you get it right.”

Being challenged to figure out any problems has driven the junior to learn more about all facets of robotics.

“When you’re trying to incorporate a plan of something to do and you lack the knowledge to do it, you have to teach yourself,” he said. “You have to get it done. You have deadlines that you need to meet.”

VanScoyoc said Hoernel’s ability to embrace and find ways to resolve the different challenges that can pop up during building or competition phases has made the junior a leader.

“If he doesn’t know about something, then he finds out how to get it done,” said VanScoyoc, a mentor on the team for three years.

For VanScoyoc, the best part of the robotics team is when students grasp a new idea or learn something new.

“It’s pretty awesome when you see the kids get what you’re talking about,” he said. “I make no illusion to myself or anyone when I tell other people the kids can tell them more about the robot they made last year than I ever could. Having the hands-off approach as mentors, we want them to have that experience.”

VanScoyoc said the new year has brought in some new faces, and even some of the younger team members are quick to acclimate them with what they are doing.

“Our newbies are teaching our newbies right now,” he said. “We have mentorship from within.”

While showing a new team member heir JAVA coding program, Paige Peterman said she has been interested in finding out how something works since she was younger, and robotics was a natural draw to her.

“Programming is a very intricate activity,” she said. “It’s not as physical like building the robot, but there’s a lot of mental work that goes into it.”

Once the building period ends and the competition phase begins, Smith said the team will travel to Traverse City and Battle Creek for district events. Based on how the robot completes the required tasks, as well as design and appearance of the robot, safety and leadership, the team will receive points. If the team garners enough points during district competitions, it will be invited to the statewide competition in late April.

Growing interest in robotics from younger students has led to the creation of a Reed City Middle School team, Smith said.

“They are seeing what we are doing and think it’s pretty neat, and they want to be a part of it,” he said. “We’ve also had assemblies and were able to show off what we were doing.”

The community also has responded, Smith said, as the team has received sponsorship from local companies such as Reed City Tool & Die, H & R Screw, Ventra Plastics and TransCanada.

Smith said the robotics program has opened new doors for some RCHS graduates to pursue opportunities in STEM fields such as programming, production and maintenance for products such as drones and industrial robotic machines.

“Engineering and computer science are really big and in high demand,” Smith said. “Those are competitive, growing fields, and just another opportunity for the students who want to pursue their interests after high school.”