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Seth Veit loads Buster with seven "orbit balls" prior to the start of a match. Buster was programmed to throw the balls for the first 15 seconds of each play. Students operated Buster for the remaining two minutes to throw as many balls as they could in the opponents' robots. (Submitted photo)

Nevis robotics team plays 'Lunacy' at state

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Protective of their precious creation, the Nevis robotics team carefully moves "Buster" into and out of the playing field during a hectic fast-paced competition inspired by the first lunar landing mission.

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Counting on their robot Buster to score autonomously for the first 15 seconds of each two minute and 15-second play, the "Devious Machinations" team stands anxiously waiting to implement its outlined strategy.

"It felt way longer than 15 seconds," team member Jerald Thomas said.

Devious Machinations traveled to compete in the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) state competition at the University of Minnesota this weekend.

Teams from all over the state played "Lunacy," a game inspired by the landing of Apollo 11, the United State's first lunar landing mission in 1969.

Lunacy requires throwing "orbit balls" designated as moon rocks, empty cells or super cells. Each robot is equipped with slippery wheels and trailers that move around a low friction field.

The game was simulating driving on the moon - difficult and hard to stop, the students said.

Two three-team alliances collect balls and score by placing them in the opposing teams' robots.

It was all about teamwork, careful planning and scoring as many points as possible.

Each member of Devious Machinations had a role.

Jerald Thomas drove the robot as Michael Kempnich guided him, while Joy Thomas recorded video and jotted down some notes.

By the end of the day Friday, the 13-member team got together in their hotel room with principal Jodi Sandmeyer to strategize for Saturday's matches.

"Everything that we had to do was something new," Kempnich said.

Out of 51 teams, Nevis ranked 13th and placed fourth out of 18 rookie teams.

It wasn't high enough to move on to the championship match that took place at the end of Saturday's competition, but they learned "a lot about thinking on the fly," Kempnich said.

The team won five out of seven plays and if Buster hadn't experienced a technical malfunction on Saturday morning, they would've ranked even higher, said Rusty Uscola, physics teacher and the team's mentor.

The battery cable was loose on Buster and when it hit one of the walls surrounding the playing field, it lost power and stood still during one of the plays, causing a setback for the team and its alliance.

"Problems came up quickly and we had to solve them quickly," team member Josh Hass said.

The team brought Buster backstage where they fixed him up before moving on to additional matches.

More strategizing was conducted with the few minutes of free time the team had between each match. They met with other students they competed with on the same alliance to come up with creative ways to score.

"It was very fast-paced and stressful at times," Jerald Thomas said.

The competition taught Devious Machinations the art of competing "graciously and professionally," while working with Buster taught them building, engineering, science and technology, the students said.

"I keep wishing that we would've started last year," said senior Jerald Thomas.

But he and Kempnich plan to mentor other high school students when they move to the Twin Cities area next year for college.

As for this year's competition, Sandmeyer said, "We accomplished every goal that we set out this year."

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