Learning is a slam dunk for robot-building team

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Monday, March 26, 2012
— Swish!

No matter how many times you see it, it never fails to thrill.

Teens with painted faces and school colors danced and screamed for their favorite teams. They shake pompons and hold up signs. On the floor, teammates break into a line dance as music thumps from the speakers in the U.S. Cellular Arena.


They always make that three-point shot from half-court look so easy. Watching, you forget the hours of practice, lap running and weightlifting behind one of those perfect baskets.

Or, in the case of Rock County's newest "basketball" team, the hours of designing, calculating, constructing and recalibrating that has gone into each of those perfect baskets.

This weekend, teens from Craig, Parker and Milton high schools competed in the FIRST Robotics regional in Milwaukee. The Rock'nRobots' basketball-playing robot, Swish, finished 29th out of 48 teams in the three-day event. That was good enough to put the Rock County team on the alternate list for the upcoming national competition in Milwaukee. It also was a big jump up from last year's 45th place.

Teams in January got instructions and lists of parts for the competition. Teams had six weeks to design, build and practice with their robots. Then the machines, which must weigh less than 120 pounds, were sealed in plastic until they arrived in Milwaukee for the regional competition. Teams from around the Midwest as well as one from Mexico competed Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

The top 20 teams are guaranteed spots at the national FIRST competition in St. Louis, Mo, if they can or want to go.

This year, teams were instructed to build robots that could pick up basketballs, shoot baskets and drive onto one of several small platforms balanced like teeter-totters.

FIRST stands for "for inspiration and recognition of science and technology." The international competition was founded in 1983 as a way to support math, science and technology learning in high schools.

"As a country, we've fallen behind in math and science, said Parker High School technology education teacher Tom Heiss, one of the Rock'nRobots adult leaders. "These kids are putting us where we need to be 10 or 15 years from now."

The extracurricular robotics team competition fills in a gap for some students who have skills beyond some of the technology classes offered in the Janesville School District, he said.

Participants learn much more than how to build a robot, said Dan Creed of Footville, a volunteer mentor for the Rock County team. Creed works in computer and technology services at Epic Systems in Verona.

When asked, Creed rattled off a laundry list of skills that participants take home from the robotics competition, including experience with electronics, engineering, physics, programming, mechanics, woodworking, multimedia, marketing, sales, public relations and the ability to work under pressure.

"Then you get to the competition and there's engineering on the fly," Creed said.

By means of example, members of the Rock'nRobots team on Saturday morning huddled around Swish, trying to figure out why it hadn't performed as well as expected during one of the morning bouts. They had help from adult mentors who work at electrical or design companies in Rock County.

When they arrived at the competition, individual teams were randomly placed into larger teams. Students had a few minutes before each match to talk to their new teammates—likely from another school or state—to come up with a game plan.

During each two-minute match, four individual teams were lumped onto a larger "red" team and four onto a blue team.

They earned points for each basket and for successfully rolling two robots onto one of the balancing platforms. In each case, one robot from the red team and one from the blue team had to balance together to earn "co-opertition" points.

The concept of working cooperatively with strangers is invaluable real world experience, Creed said. Even outside the competition arena, teams shared parts and ideas with others, he said.

The team didn't quite meet its goal of a guaranteed spot at nationals, but it set a good pace for annual improvement, Heiss said. And members are coming home full of plans for next year's robot, he said.

"For next year, I got 50 more ideas just on the bus ride home," Heiss said.


The Rock'nRobots is a team of students from Rock County high schools that participates in the FIRST Robotics competition. After a regional event this past weekend, the team was placed on an alternate list for national competition. Whether they go to nationals in St. Louis or just get ready for next year, the team can use the community's support.

The entry fee for the regional competition was $5,000. The parts to build the robot cost about $6,000, and travel, lodging and food cost $4,500.

To donate time or money, contact Parker High School technology education teacher Tom Heiss at (608) 743-5844 or email theiss@janesville.k12.wi.us.

Last updated: 7:52 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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