Six weeks of building a robot boils down to two minutes of competition.

While six teams at a time took the field with their robots to compete at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center on Friday in FIRST Robotics regional competition, more than 100 teams of high school students crowded around their robots in the chaos of the safety-glasses-required pit to tweak, repair, reprogram, change and practice in effort to ensure that everything went as planned when it’s their turn drive their robot in a match.

More than halfway through the day of qualification matches Friday, Marshall School’s Topperbots team was nearing its next match time. A few students carefully loaded their robot onto a cart to push it to the practice area. The team followed behind, yelling “robot” to part the crowd to make way for the cart. They passed wandering jaguar and alligator mascots, and booths filled with students and team mentors, some quickly working to make last-minute adjustments and others leisurely sitting on portable chairs with hours to go until their next match.

In the practice area, the Topperbots ran through the first 15 seconds of the match, when the robot must move on its own via pre-programmed computer code. As the robot went over a small ramp, it suddenly started to pitch forward before being righted, the result of the robot traveling too fast, explained Topperbots junior Emily Jackson, who worked on the code.

The Topperbots, a team of 25 students founded four years ago, was one of 123 high school robotics teams to compete Friday in the Northern Lights and Lake Superior regionals of FIRST, the acronym of For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.

This year’s challenge, “Recycle Rush,” was to build a robot that could lift boxes onto each other and top it off with a recycling bin while students tried to have their robot throw pool noodles at the opposing teams’ robots.

The challenge was unveiled six weeks before the regionals, meaning many of the teams were still putting the finishing touches on their robots in the pit as the competition began. Building the robot takes about a week and the remaining time is spent tweaking and troubleshooting, Jackson said.

As soon as Topperbots wrapped up its practice, it was off to the field alongside two other teams in their alliance, competing against another alliance of three teams.

Jackson waited with her team, going through in her mind the steps she’d be taking to set up the robot for the match.

“You’re thinking about if it’s going to go right, which it never does,” she said. Aaron deVenecia, who would be driving the robot during the match, chimed in with his thoughts as he was waiting: “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.”

The Topperbots’ first 15 pre-programmed seconds went smoothly and deVenecia fist-pumped the air in excitement before taking the controls. But the robot traveled too fast, and without any students allowed to stop it, it fell forward, landing on the box it was carrying to a collective gasp from hundreds in the audience.

Another team in the match drove its robot to the fallen machine in an attempt to provide aid by pushing it back up - FIRST Robotics places an emphasis on teamwork - but it was to no avail. The Topperbots couldn’t do anything but watch for the remainder of the match. DeVenecia dropped his head in frustration; a teammate patted him on the back as they made their way back to the pit.

“You never know what will happen,” Jackson said afterward.

But the team soon had another shot, another two minutes in which anything could happen. After the Tooperbots made a few adjustments to their robot’s top-heaviness in the pit prior to the next match, the robot jerked forward with speed a few times - but it ultimately stayed upright. DeVenecia said he was happy with the robot’s performance the second time around.

Although the students joined the team for different reasons, they said they stay for the camaraderie and the skills they’re learning by building a robot.

Topperbots junior Kristen Johnston explained that although it’s a competition, all the teams support and help each other.

Jackson said she plans to study electrical engineering and computer science in college, and sees robotics as giving her a leg up on that. She’s also learned how to become more handy with tools and come up with solutions on the fly, she said.

Sam Voigt, a junior on the Topperbots team, said she enjoys the chance to put into practice things that she is taught in class each day.  

“We learn math in school and then, yay, we built this,” she said of the robot.

The competition continues today at the DECC, including opening ceremonies at 8:30 a.m.; qualification matches beginning at 9 a.m., final rounds beginning at 1:30 p.m. and an awards ceremony at 4:30 p.m.

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