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The RHS FIRST Robotics team is Matt Piekarski , David Piekarski, Mike Davis, Mitch Bohlke, Scott Tessman, Andy Holzmer, Devin Olson, Andrew Conlin, Erich Wirtanen, Sam Adelman, Jack Barton, Greg Mason, Ja'Relle Davis, Cortney Stevens, Zach Zemanovic

RHS robotics team gears up for competition

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Samantha Adelman never really thought of herself as an engineer. She's an artist. And while she grew up watching her cousin build things, when she imagined creating things it was with pencils and paintbrushes, not screwdrivers and socket wrenches.

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But last year cousin Matt Piekarski dragged her to a meeting of Rosemount High School's robotics team.

Adelman was hooked.

"I just fell in love with doing it," she said. "I actually got into using power tools, which was scary."

Turns out you don't have to be a heavy-duty science type to get excited about robots. The competition attracts all kinds -- from kids in the top 10 percent of their class to students who aren't likely to attend college. Some come because they like robots. Some because they like to build things. And some, like Adelman, come because they're pressured by friends or family. Everybody who shows up, though, seems to have a good time.

That's important at RHS, where students are still learning the ins and outs of FIRST Robotics competition. This is the school's second year in the program. RHS signed up last year when the people behind the league, interested in expanding its reach, lined up sponsors willing to pay the competition's $6,000 entry fee and went looking for schools interested in getting involved. RHS faculty advisor David Baertsch signed on because he enjoys robots and technology.

"It's a lot of fun," said Baertsch, who teaches computer and programming classes at RHS. "I think the kids really enjoy it, and it's really designed to push the whole engineering, science and technology envelope."

It's also designed to get students working hard and working fast. Here's how it works: Every team in the competition gets a kit with gears, wheels and motors. They also get an explanation of how the competition will work. This year, the robots students build will have to pick up softball-size spheres and get them into trailers being hauled by other teams' robots. Teams have six weeks to build their robot -- they can supplement the kit with their own items -- then they pack their creation up and send it off. They don't see it again until the competition.

Baertsch said the schedule is designed to push students, who also have to design web pages and put together videos documenting the creation process. There's enough time to get something built, but not enough time to sit around analyzing ideas.

"I think they're trying to give you not quite enough time to get everything done," Baertsch said. "They want you to juggle it."

That tight schedule was a challenge for the RHS team last year. This year, Baertsch said, students got a little too comfortable with the schedule. In addition to creating the robot students put together videos of the construction process and create a web page for their team.

"I think we actually started out a little too confident in what was going on so we actually probably shorted ourselves on time a little more than last year," he said.

They got it done, though. And now they're looking forward to taking on the other schools that show up -- and to seeing what ideas their fellow competitors came up with.

"It's kind of weird, because you go and you're building a robot and you're, like, 'This is the best thing ever," Piekarski said. "Then you go to a competition and see all these other things and you say, 'Why didn't I do that?'"

Often other teams are thinking the same thing, he said. Students said freshmen typically do better than older students in the competition because they're less likely to overthink their designs.

Competing last year in Milwaukee the RHS team finished tenth among 66 competing teams. The top teams at regional competitions around the country qualify for a world competition.

That's getting harder and harder to do around here. Three years ago there were five FIRST Robotics teams in Minnesota. Last year there were more than 60. There are two regional competitions taking place on the same days just across the street from each other -- the RHS team's competition at Mariucci Arena and another at Williams Arena.

The program provides $8 million in scholarships. RHS graduate Jonathan Nutzman is currently studying at the University of Minnesota with help from a FIRST scholarship. Another RHS FIRST alumnus is currently studying aerospace engineering at the University of North Dakota.

Beyond winning and losing, though, Baertsch believes the competition teaches students a lot.

"Besides just electronics and stuff you learn better social skills. Teamwork," Adelman said. "You develop life skills."

You might even figure out what you want to do with your life.

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