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Robotics teams draw upon diverse talents

Students in Esko High School's Subzero Robotics team concentrate while driving their robot (red) in competition during the Lake Superior FIRST Regional Robotics competition at the DECC Saturday. They were attempting to get into position to launch a ball into an opening in the tower at left. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)1 / 3
East High School's Henri LaLiberte, flanked by Ryan Cauchon (left) and Craig Liang, cart the team's robot named "Albion" into the arena to compete in Saturday's Lake Superior Regional FIRST Robotics competition. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)2 / 3
Dean Ott of Hatton, North Dakota, waits for his team's turn at competition at the robotics event at the DECC Saturday afternoon. Ott's T-shirt, which is almost completely covered in buttons from other robotics competitions, weighs seven pounds. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)3 / 3

A sea of people dressed in maroon and gold cheered as the announcer introduced the Denfeld High School students.

“DNA Robotics from right here in Duluth!”

Denfeld students and their families chanted “D-N-A!” from the stands as members of the school’s robotics team, dressed in white lab coats, maneuvered their robot to throw balls into a tower. As the buzzer sounded to mark the end of the match, the crowd stood up cheering and waving handmade maroon signs bearing the name “DNA” — an acronym for Denfeld Nation Automation.

“Robotics is in our blood,” a sign stated in the team’s pit area.

After going undefeated in the quarterfinals Saturday at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, the Denfeld team was the high scorer in two matches in the finals at the Lake Superior Regional for FIRST Robotics.

Hundreds of students from dozens of teams descended on the DECC once again on Saturday for the last day of competition at the annual robotics event. After weeks of robot-building and preparation for a specific challenge, teams were competing for the chance to advance to the world competition to be held in April in St. Louis.

A hallmark of FIRST Robotics is that the unique skills brought by each student are put to work to make a successful team — whether they’re overseeing last-minute adjustments to the robot, taking photos to post on the team’s website or leading the crowd in cheers.

Dressed in maroon and gold as the Denfeld robotics team’s mascot, Antony Ferguson, a Denfeld senior, danced to the music between the matches alongside other teams’ mascots of a panther, a robot and a superhero.

Ferguson’s friends got him interested in the robotics team, he said, but he doesn’t have enough time to take a central role in working on the robot — so he does what he can to participate. This is his second year as the team mascot, leading the crowd in Denfeld-specific chants during the matches in an attempt to get the cameras to focus on them. He also pumps up the crowd with dancing between matches — using skills he’s learned in 15 years as a student with the Minnesota Ballet.

“There should be a place for any kid who wants to join robotics. It’s pretty great,” he said.

The Denfeld robotics team has been growing and improving each year. In its first year, it finished 63rd out of 64 teams. The next year, it finished in seventh. This year, the team has been doing better than ever, team mentor Susan Johnson said.

Like other high school teams, the dynamics change from year to year as students start high school and others graduate, team mentor Bruce Fehringer said. Each year, it’s about finding out what each student does best and finding their purpose on the team. Any student who wants to join the robotics team is welcomed, he said. That attitude makes for a stronger team because students are enthusiastic and completing tasks that interest them.

“We pride ourselves that we don’t have an application process,” he said.

Johnson added that the team isn’t composed only of students interested in building a robot — there are also team members working on marketing and fundraising.

“It’s truly a team effort,” she said.

Cassidy Walker, a junior at Denfeld, is interested in photography and journalism. She joined the team after the previous team photographer left and her friends on the team knew she liked to take pictures and write. In her second year as the team photographer, she captures all the events in photos she posts on the team’s website, and she writes news releases to provide information on the team.

“It’s cool. I never thought I’d use my skills on robotics,” she said.

Keenan Oswald, a sophomore on the Denfeld team, operates the skycam that captured the action during the Lake Superior Regional. The owner of the production company that films the competition taught him how to operate the camera using the controls, which are “very video game control-esque,” he said.

He also helps build the test field so the team can practice operating the robot before the regional competition. Before joining robotics last year, he didn’t have a lot to do after school. It’s a team that anyone can join, he said.

Johnson’s daughter, Taylor Johnson, oversees her teammates as the co-captain of the Denfeld team. She has focused more this year on organizing the team than she did in previous years, she said, ensuring the team works smoothly together and that her teammates have the equipment they need to do their part. The team also is focusing on being more student-led this year, with more responsibility falling on the students than the team mentors and coaches.

She encouraged other students to join.

“Students with any skill set can join robotics,” she said.

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