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On a recent Wednesday night at Anaconda High School, a small group of teens gathered around a square, pen-like area on the floor of a science classroom. All of their attention was focused on a four-wheeled robot and whether its “collector,” or excavator, could reach high enough to place “minerals,” or small plastic objects, into a cardboard box that stood 3 feet tall.

Robolution team brings Butte, Anaconda high school students together

The Robolution team talks through how to get their robot to successfully perform a task at a recent meeting in Anaconda High School. The robotics team is made up of ninth- through twelfth-grade students from Butte and Anaconda.

Meet Robolution, a collaborative Butte and Anaconda High School robotics team funded through Montana Tech’s Upward Bound program. The first-year team has competed in three robotics tournaments so far, most recently at the Montana FIRST Tech Challenge, or what they referred to as the state tournament.

Carlton Nelson, a science teacher at Anaconda High School, is the team’s coach. He said he has been working for a few years to find enough interest and funding for a local high school robotics team.

“You cannot get any better STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) involvement than with robotics,” Nelson, who also teaches a robotics class at Anaconda High, said.

That interest and funding came to fruition this past year with a huge grant award through Tech’s Upward Bound program, which uses federal funding to support and provide services for low-income students in Butte, Anaconda, and Helena. The grant funded separate Butte and Anaconda high school teams. After the first competition in Helena, Nelson said they combined into one 10-person group.

Transitioning from a group of individuals to the team Robolution is today wasn’t easy, Nelson said. There was a sort of rift between the Butte and Anaconda students, but after an AmeriCorps representative came in to help with team building, Nelson said the dynamics changed completely.

“We had a hard time socially at first because all of these students are leaders,” Nelson said. “Establishing who the leader was in each area was a big challenge.”

Nelson said Caleb Thompson, a junior at Anaconda High School, was one student who stepped up to tackle this challenge. Thompson encouraged the students to identify their personal strengths and the strengths of their teammates, Nelson said, which worked to break down barriers.

Like Nelson, Thompson said he feels this robotics team is a good introduction to the STEM fields and possible occupations after high school. At the recent Wednesday night meeting, he talked enthusiastically about the different functions of the team’s robot, along with the main objectives in competition and why it all mattered to him.

“A lot of people in small-town Montana don’t care about robots… Through these competitions, you can meet other people with the same interests as you,” Thompson said. “There are so many things you can do here, even if you’re not scientifically or mathematically inclined. You meet great people, make friends and connections for the future.”

Katherine Radoicich, a sophomore at Butte High, expressed similar thoughts.

“I love finding solutions to problems, and robotics is very much a problem-solving environment,” Radoicich said. “And it’s a good place to relieve stress.”

Radoicich said she always knew she wanted to go into a STEM field, and her dream is to become an architectural engineer. She said the main reason this is her goal is because, as a woman, she feels she would be “alone in the field,” in a way.

“Breaking the glass ceiling is my dream in any area. As a woman in STEM is a good way to start,” Radoicich said.

Butte and Anaconda students introduced to STEM fields through Robolution robotics team

William Barrington, left, holds onto the Robolution team robot while Caleb Thompson makes a few adjustments.

Last Wednesday was Robolution’s final meeting before Friday’s state competition in Bozeman. The team tested and tweaked their robot and both the autonomous and human-controlled programs it would perform, hoping to at least be drafted in an alliance, which is when a top-four team chooses a second and third to complement them in the championship matches.

Radoicich said that night she was feeling pretty good about the tournament but that she had “realistic expectations.”

On Friday, things didn’t go quite as Robolution planned, Nelson said. The team wasn’t picked for an alliance, but Nelson said he is proud of the students and believes they will use their experiences from this first year to grow into the next.

Their next task? Travel to Houston this April to cheer on Montana’s competitors at nationals, a trip guaranteed through the team’s Upward Bound grant, Nelson said.

But Robolution wasn’t the only local robotics team that competed in Bozeman over the weekend.

On Saturday, Margaret Leary Robotics team members also showed off the programs their LEGO robot could complete, finishing 30th overall out of over 75 teams that competed in the Montana FIRST LEGO League Tournament. Two students even won free, space-themed LEGO sets, the team’s coach Paul Dailey said.

Butte kids participate in statewide robotics competition

Ryan Draper, 10, and Raelee Mihailovich, 10, put together a piece for their robot last week after school at Margaret Leary Elementary School in Butte.

Dailey explained that the pre-high school level robotics competition is set up a little differently. While high school teams are judged on their engineering notebook, the tasks and programs their robot performs, and their professionalism, the elementary and middle-school teams are judged on their robot’s abilities, along with a separate activity to test teamwork skills and a themed project that benefits the community.

This year, that theme was outer space. Dailey said this was a tricky theme to connect with the Butte community. But after his team Skyped with some NASA employees and discovered they get lonely in space, the team got an idea. 

“We made the connection that kids at our school get lonely too and thought about what we could do to help with that,” Dailey said. “The team came up with a buddy bench.”

Dailey explained that a buddy bench is specially decorated with images and positive quotes. If someone is lonely or maybe can’t play because they are hurt, they go to the buddy bench to signify they need a friend, Dailey said.

After selling breakfast and baked goods during the school’s Christmas program, the robotics team made $575 for their buddy bench project. The team decided to hire BSW Inc. to make their bench, which Dailey said they hope to have on their playground soon.

At the most recent Margaret Leary Robotics meeting in Dailey’s classroom after school, the 26 team members worked on robot programming and their project presentation for the weekend tournament.

“It’s pretty amazing technology behind it,” Meela Mitchell, 11, said about the team robot and what it’s programmed to do.

Mitchell has been on the Margaret Leary team for two years. She said she wasn’t sure she’d like the program at first, but once she tried it, she thought it was fun.

“It’s really fun and challenging at the same time,” Mitchell said. “You just have to be okay with failure… The more you fail, the better it feels when you get it to work.”

While Mitchell talked with friends and helped with robot programming, Gannon Sullivan, Reis Speer, Sitota Graff, and Kyler Adams-Johnson talked more about the buddy bench project at the presentation planning table. The four team members said they didn’t want anyone at their school to not have a friend and also talked about how they feel the robotics team has helped them develop skills they could use later in life.

“We have to solve problems here, and in life you have to solve problems,” Sullivan said.

“Yeah, we can always go back to robotics… We can relate robotics to life,” Speer added.

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