Competitive robotics coming to Rushford-Peterson Schools

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There’s a new sport coming this month to Rushford-Peterson schools and it doesn’t involve any kind of ball, hockey puck, or brand-new bat. R-P students now have the chance to participate in Competitive Robotics, thanks to second-year science teacher Mike Mulholland.

Mulholland, who first learned about competitive robotics while student teaching two years ago, said the competition involves teams building robots to complete specific tasks that are different every year. Past tasks including building a robot to do everything from shoot a basketball to throwing a Frisbee. All teams work on the same assigned task during their season. Minnesota saw its first two high school robotics teams compete back in 2006. That number has grown rapidly in recent years.

“We’re going to get started on Saturday, Jan 5,” Mulholland said. “We pick up the building kits and get the information on what game they’re doing this year. We get a new game (objective) every year. The overall theme for this year is ‘Space Exploration.’ The competition is set up with rules, ways to score points, and we have to design a robot that will be best able to score points and win the match.

“This year's competition is called ‘Deep Space’. Teams will be competing in groups of two alliances of three to apply security hatches and fill cargo bays to both rockets and a cargo ship before time runs out. There is a beginning section of 15 seconds that requires teams to control their robot by either automation or an on-board camera. After the first section, teams freely control their robots for 2 minutes, 15 seconds. After time runs out, points will be counted and the team with the highest score wins that round.”

Mulholland said it’s hard to describe what the robot will look like. The finished product typically has four wheels, as well as different mechanisms that can grab on to or lift something, helping it to perform a specific task.

“Each competition usually has six teams that are going at the same time,” he said. “There are three robots on each side, one is ours and the other two from the team we partner with. They’ll switch up teams for each match, so our partners in one match could be opponents in a future one, and vice versa.

“We’ll find out what it’s like when we go to a local competition over in La Crosse (Wisconsin), in April. We’ll be competing with a number of other schools coming in from all over the region. There’s also a Minnesota state tournament coming up, too. It’s run by the Minnesota State High School League.”

One of the biggest challenges in robotics participation is cost. Equipment kits can run several thousands of dollars. Many schools around the state rely on sponsors to help defray the cost. Mulholland said the R-P Robotics Club would love to have some area sponsors of their own to make it easier to participate in what’s been a growing sport around the state as well as across the nation.

“Because of the cost of the kits, there are a number of opportunities for sponsorships by different organizations,” Mulholland said. “We actually have a couple of sponsorships already. We also got a $ 6000 grant from NASA to help pay for the fee from First Robotics (the organization behind the robotics league). We also have some other organizations that have pledged support and financial aid.”

Kits are obtained before the season and contain the same basic parts. Teams can buy or build additional parts, but that’s where sponsorships come in to help defray some of the extra cost.

Mulholland is excited for the first season of robotics competition. Both students and administration officials wanted to get this program off the ground. He’s already had several meetings with interested students to get the robotics program organized. Mulholland says there are between 12 and 15 kids between seventh and twelfth grades that seem to be serious about the activity.

“I was student-teaching at Southland, and they had a robotics program,” he said. “However, It was a different program than the one we’re involved in at Rushford-Peterson. I helped out with that a little and that’s where I got interested. It’s my first kind of go-around with a program like this, so I’ll be learning right there with the kids.”

The Seven Rivers Regional Robotics Competition is April 4- 7, in La Crosse, Wis