Students build their skills

Members of the Fairmont Jr./Sr. High School robotics team are seen working on the base of their robot during practice.

Most people are probably aware that some students at Fairmont Jr./Sr. High School are currently busy with basketball, wrestling and gymnastics practice. However, there’s another team meeting regularly that is less well known.

The robotics team gathers four days per week, getting ready for a big competition that will take place in less than two months.

The team is part of FIRST Robotics, which stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.” High school teams compete on a special playing field with robots they have designed, built and programed.

This year, the coach is Sam Viesselman, a Fairmont High School graduate and former robotics team member. Viesselman was a junior when the FIRST Robotics team began at the high school, so he was on the team for his junior and senior years. He went on to the University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering. He is currently a software engineer at AGCO.

Several years ago, after Viesselman moved back to town, he ran into Bob Bonin, who was the robotics coach at the time. Bonin asked Viesselman if he would like to help out, so last year Viesselman was the assistant coach.

Now the head coach, Viesselman said a lot of what he does at his job is also what students are learning on the robotics team.

“I try to teach myself and stay one step ahead of them but sometimes they surpass me,” Viesselman said of the students.

Robotics is open to all students in grades 7-12. There are currently about 20 on the team, and quite a few who have been since seventh or eighth grade.

“They started out young and maybe they were in a little too deep when they were young, but now that they’re seniors they have that experience,” Viesselman said of the older team members who often help the younger ones.

The season begins in January, and each year every team in the league is given a new challenge, decided by FIRST Robotics. They then have six weeks to build a robot that can complete a specific task. This year, the robot needs to be able to pick up a box and place it on scales of different heights.

There’s something for everyone on the team to do.

The modelers make a virtual version of the robot using computer-aided drafting.

“Instead of cutting out something and then figuring out it’s wrong, you cut it in the computer and realize it’s wrong before you even try it,” Viesselman said. “So it’s faster and that’s how everyone in the industry does their designs now.”

After the robot has been designed, others start building it based off plans from the modelers. There are a lot of different components including metal frames, motors, batteries, sensors, electronics and a lot of speciality parts that are used to build the robot, which weighs about 120 pounds.

At the beginning of the season, each FIRST Robotics team is sent a kit filled with different parts. They can choose to use some, all or none of the parts. Teams can order almost any other parts they want, as long as they have the funds for them.

There are also team members who work in marketing. They help organize fundraisers and keep people up to date on what’s happening through social media. They also keep in contact with sponsors and seek out new potential sponsors.

Viesselman reported that all of the funding comes from different sponsors in the community.

“We get a good chunk of our money from 3M and also from Kahler Automation, among some other businesses in the area,” he explained.

After each FIRST Robotics team gets word of the year’s challenge, they have six weeks to create their robot. Then they need to put it in a bag and lock it up until the regional competition.

“When we’re not in the build season, we do skills building, so the programmers work on programming, the builders build stuff and sometimes we look at our robot from last year and try to improve on it for practice,” Viesselman explained.

Students learn about responsibility, leadership, STEM skills, engineering and how to problem-solve.

“The ideal flow is that you’re in FIRST Robotics because you’re interested in science and engineering, and some of these companies who sponsor the team have resources to get things done and actually try stuff out, and we want to connect with those same sponsors, and say, ‘Look, the last couple of years we’ve been working on building these skills and you guys have been helping us do it and now here is a skilled work force’ and everybody wins,” Viesselman said. “The kids get a jumpstart on their college education and get set up for a career and these local tech companies find a local person.”

Viesselman knows quite a few alumni who had been on the robotics team who went on to get jobs in the tech industry.

There are about an equal number of boy and girls on the team this year, which is a big and welcome change from previous years.

“What we found is that it’s harder to get girls to take the plunge into it, but once they start doing it, they’re as into it as everybody and as capable as everybody,” Viesselman said.

One of the robotics team captains, senior Celia Simpson, has been on the team since she was in eighth grade.

“I’ve learned a lot of programming and I’ve been exposed to a lot of things I wouldn’t have been otherwise,” she said of why she likes robotics.

“It’s definitely challenging, but it’s fun for me. If it’s not challenging it’s kind of boring,” Simpson said.

Aaron Hendricks, the other captain, is a sophomore who has been on the team since he was in seventh grade.

“I like the challenge of designing and getting to build a robot,” he said.

Both captains agree they enjoy the opportunity to teach skills to younger students.

“There’s a lot of teaching that goes on because we’ve had a lot of years worth of experience so there’s this group of kids that know a lot and then there’s a group of kids who know nothing,” Simpson explained.

Both Simpson and Hendricks expressed how excited they are for the upcoming competition.

The 10,000 Lakes Regional Competition will be at Williams Arena on the University of Minnesota campus at the end of March. Fairmont’s robotics team will compete against about 60 other teams and, since there are no classes, they could be up against much larger schools.

Nonetheless, the team looks forward to the competition, as they have the chance to see how well their finished product fares.

“They built this robot completely from beginning to end so I think there’s a real sense of accomplishment in that,” Viesselman said.