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Nevis robotics team hosts kickoff

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The Nevis Tech-No-Tigers welcomed 17 robotics teams from Minnesota and North Dakota on Saturday to a 2017 season kickoff.

With an estimated 320 people from 16 schools in attendance, the third annual Northern Minnesota FIRST Robotics Competition event was the second largest kickoff in the state.

Teams learned the details of this year's robotics challenge and viewed one of the only official game fields in northern Minnesota.

A donor, who wishes to remain anonymous, gave the Nevis team the $22,000 needed to construct the game field.

Breakout sessions, taught by the Nevis team and other veteran robotics clubs, covered game strategy and topics like 3D printed parts, building field elements, control system configuration, the game manual, manufacturing and VEX, the Northern MN Robotics Hub and scouting to finals.

More than robots

Founded in 1989 by inventor Dean Kamen, FIRST stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. The 501(c)(3) nonprofit aims to inspire young people's interest and participation in science and technology. FIRST designs accessible, innovative programs — like the robotics competition and Lego leagues — to motivate young people to pursue education and careers in STEM-related fields, inspire them to become innovators, and enhance their 21st century work and life skills.

In a video message Saturday, Kamen emphasized that the "design thinking" process is just as important as technology.

FIRST is also a proponent of "gracious professionalism" and "coopertition" — kindness, respect and cooperation even while fiercely competing.

"This is a community sport and it's important we learn from each other," said Nevis mentor Andrew Dahlby in his opening remarks Saturday. He encouraged teams to network and collaborate throughout the season.

"We live in rural Minnesota. Isolation is a real problem," he said. "Talk. Share your ideas. It will make us all better."

Dahlby urged attendees to recruit more teams and bring them to next year's kickoff. He hopes to see the number of teams grow to 20-25.

The Nevis Tech-No-Tigers are mentoring two rookie teams this year: Walker's Los Robos and Kelliher's Bog Bots.

There are 4,300 FIRST robotics teams worldwide and more than 200 in Minnesota.

FIRST also offers $50 million in scholarships to student alumni.

Becoming a STEAMpunk

This year's competition, called STEAMworks, invites contestants to grab their goggles and venture into the Victorian era, where technology relied on steam power.

Two "adventure clubs" — alliances of three teams each — must "prepare their airships for the ultimate long-distance race."

Each alliance prepares for flight by "building steam pressure." Robots must collect "fuel," represented by green balls, and toss them into a "steam boiler" to score points. Robots must also gather and deliver gears to "pilots." Human pilots will assemble gear trains to rotate four rotors, earning additional points. Finally, the robot must "climb aboard the airship" via a rope and trigger a pressure pad. The adventure club with the highest score wins the match.

High school students, paired with adult mentors, have six weeks from the kickoff date to analyze, strategize the game, then design, build and test their robot.

An inclusive "sport of the mind"

The Nevis club is unique compared to other robotics teams because of its diversity, says senior Ryan Buck. Most teams are all boys or all girls, he noted, but Nevis has a mix.

"We give everybody an equal opportunity," Buck said.

In fact, an influx of freshmen girls this year led the club to add a female mentor. Kay Netteberg, a special education teacher, is the newest advisor, joining Rusty Uscola, Olaf Netteberg, Mark Hamborg, Jon Bjorkstrand and Mike Tauber.

"We have a huge crop of ninth graders, all female," Dahlby said. "We needed a mentor to reflect the makeup of the team."

Netteberg said she's excited to join the effort. With a female mentor on board, the club will have access to new resources, like the Society of Women Engineers.

Unlike Metro schools, which receive help from Lockheed and Boeing engineers, rural school teams typically involve educators and tradespeople as mentors.

"So we always feel good when we beat them," said Netteberg. "The rural schools are getting to be a force to be reckoned with."

The club plans to expand its outreach through summer camps, Girl Scouts and appearances at community events, like Muskie Days. They also are "fired up" to launch a FIRST Ladies team in the near future, said Netteberg.

While building the game field, Netteberg said "it was really empowering to see the girls not to be afraid to jump in because there was a female mentor not afraid to jump in."