Willmar Middle School WARP2 robotics team enjoyed trip to state competition in rookie year


— It was the day before they were to leave for state competition, and during a practice run a part suddenly flew off their robot.

So the members of WARP2, the third and youngest team in the FIRST Robotics program in

Willmar Public Schools

, went to work on the operation of the robot's claw.

Some of them worked on fixing the problem, which had happened before, while others made lists of what to take along and started packing.

The industrial technology shops at Willmar Senior High were a busy place.

"Right now, the claw is not functioning, so they're trying to problem-solve," said coach Jared Anderson, a senior high math teacher. "Is it a motor issue, is it a programming issue, is it a mechanical issue."

Each year, teams are assigned a task and build robots to accomplish it.

The robot has some complicated work to do. In the words of team member Beckett Gustafson, "there's a bunch of poles that are bendy, and you take a cone, you lift it up and put it on top of the pole."

The High Tech Kids MN FIRST Tech Challenge State Championship was Feb. 11 at the St. Paul RiverCentre.

WARP2 is a group of mostly sixth- and seventh-graders, all in their rookie year in the program.

The team played six matches at the state meet. They didn't move past the qualifying round but had a good experience, Anderson said in an email.

If WARP2 members stick with the program, they'll advance to WARP1, the experienced Willmar Middle School team, and then to WARPSPEED, the high school team which competes at a higher level with bigger, more expensive robots.

FIRST Robotics is an international program to build engineering and technology skills and inspire young people. Teams are numbered sequentially in the order they joined the program.

Willmar's high school team is 4239. WARP1 is 15295 and WARP2 is 22181. The program added WARP2 because of high interest at Willmar Middle School.

"This is what the community wants; this is what industry wants," said coach Shawn Nelson, a high school industrial arts teacher. "Inside this little machine you see 3D-printed parts, laser-cut parts, plasma-cut parts, plus all the programming that goes into it with the motors."

This year's challenge is called Power Play — a competition in which robots place cones over poles. The higher the pole, the higher the points. Teams can earn points in many other way, during a three-minute match in the arena marked off by short walls.

Teams from different schools form alliances for the competition, and two alliances compete in a match.

WARP2 went to the state when they were chosen to ally with a team that had already won a state trip. In the regional competition of 24 teams, both Willmar teams placed in the top half of the field.

On each team, tasks are spread among the team members. Some do computer coding, others handle design or building. Some are drivers during competition.

Beckett and Nicholas Runke, both sixth-graders, said they had built much of the robot. Kayden Kidwell, the lone eighth-grader on the team, said he built the drivetrain.

Natalie Jurgenson, a sixth-grader, said she had worked on coding. As the state meet approached, she was working on the team's engineering notebook and script for competitions.

Nearby, WARP1 team members were still working on their robot, even though their season was over

Noah Fernelius, an eighth-grader, and Devin Seubert, a seventh-grader, were keeping their robot in shape, hoping to show it at a high school event in Willmar, "maybe try to get some more sponsors," Noah said. "It's always nice to show off the robots."

Local businesses and individuals donate for the program each year. Even though the teams use spare parts when they can, building the robots can be costly.

The two said they have helped the younger team as they prepare for state.

Coaches said the older teams often mentor newcomers.

"A big part of this team's success is the high school team," said Coach Nelson.

"The students had a blast and learned a lot," Coach Anderson said after the competition. Judges were encouraging and reminded the team how well they had done to compete at the state level in their first year, especially as one of the youngest teams there, he said.

WARP2 was one of the few teams made up of all middle school students and may have been the only one with mostly sixth-graders.