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Youth gearing up for robotics competition

FAIRMONT — The first Martin County KnowHow! Youth Robotics competition will take place 9 a.m. to noon Saturday at Fairmont Elementary School.

The competition is sponsored by the KnowHow! committee, a new offshoot of Project 1590. The robotics competition is the group’s first project.

“We’re focused on STEM and mostly on youth stuff right now,” said Sam Viesselman, a member of the committee.

Viesselman has been Fairmont High School’s robotics coach for several years. He has been a member of Project 1590 since 2017. Project 1590 is comprised of community members from around Martin County who are working to create a unique, healthy and vibrant community. Viesselman described how KnowHow! got started.

“I’ve been doing the robotics team thing and we’ve been doing a lot of outreach, but I thought we could do something bigger and do something countywide,” he said.

Others with a similar interest joined the committee. School principals were then contacted to see what type of interest there would be in a robotics competition for youth.

On Saturday, students in grades 4-6 from Truman, Martin County West and Fairmont will participate. There are 11 teams, each with two to three people. The teams will play in seven or eight matches, which are each one to two minutes long.

Asked why the competition is for younger grades, Viesselman explained there is a junior high robotics program for seventh- and eighth-grade students at Fairmont High School. The program began just last year.

Fairmont High School’s robotics team was started in 2009. Viesselman joined while a high school student in 2010 and stayed on the team through his senior year in 2011. After attending college at the University of Minnesota, he returned to Fairmont and has been the coach of the robotics team for three years.

Viesselman would like to see students get involved not only in robotics but also other STEM activities at a younger age.

“By the time they’re in high school, it’s too late,” he said. “They’ve already decided [robotics is] not for them. I’m trying to turn that on its head and say, ‘Even if you’re not the best math or science student, are you into hands-on stuff and seeing how something works?’

“It gives them a fun outlook to apply to what they’re learning. The robots are fun. At the end of the day, you’re driving this thing you designed and built and it’s fun.”

Viesselman said KnowHow! received a $5,900 grant from the Martin County Area Youth Foundation. The money was utilized to purchase a dozen kits that will be used in the competition. Once the kits are made into robots, they can be taken apart and used again.

Each team was given its kit in September and has been expected to work on it outside of school. Students are not allowed to use anything outside of the kit to make their robots, but everything they need to build, wire and program a robot is in the kit.

“That helps prevent the barrier to enter. You get this kit and that’s all you need. You don’t need to go to the store to buy anything else,” Viesselman said.

He noted there are many videos and other resources out there to help students put together their kits. Each team also must have a sort of coach or mentor, all of whom have received a brief training.

KnowHow! committee members are running the competition, with several high school robotics team members volunteering to help.

The public is invited to attend the event Saturday. While it’s being called a robotics competition, Viesselman hopes it is much more than that.

“It is competitive, but really our goal is to see students enjoy it and have fun,” he said. “Everyone will play in the finals. I think it’s important to reward them for working hard, but our goal isn’t to teach them how to win a competition, but to teach them to work together and have fun doing it.”

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