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South Washington County students go 'Nuts' over robots; team headed to state

In fourth grade, building robots just sounded like a cool thing to do for a group of local students.

Four years later, robot construction is serious business for the group of south Washington County students.

The students -- a mix of eighth-graders attending Woodbury and Cottage Grove middle schools that has expanded to a five-person team -- now prepare to make their fourth trip to the Boston Scientific Minnesota First Lego League State Championship.

There, the team, dubbed Robo Nuts, will compete against more than 60 other groups vying for a chance to advance to a national tournament in St. Louis, Mo. The Robo Nuts qualified for state by finishing in the Top 2 at a regional tournament.

The team consists of Woodbury Middle School students Kevin Bi and Nick Hanselman, and Cottage Grove Middle School students Nate Van Kleek, Michael Maurer and Nick Welter. The team is coached by Bill Maurer and Riley McArdle.

Though making it to the state tourney has become old hat for the youngsters, the allure of the event hasn't lost its luster.

"It's always fun," said Michael Maurer.

The thrill now, Bi said, is that the competition has become "so difficult."

Contestants compete for points by running a robot through a series of timed challenges. Whichever team collects the most points comes out on top. In the past, maximum points awarded in the challenges were more attainable, but organizers have since ramped up the difficulty.

"This year, you really had to think about it," Bill Maurer said.

The students are tasked with building and programming the robot. Bill Maurer said coaches are expected to provide informed guidance, but can't tell the students what to do.

"The kids do the work," Bill Maurer said. "It's a fine line between guiding and helping, and we try to steer toward (guiding)."

So he ends up asking a lot of "did you know" questions. In turn, the Robo Nuts re-examine their strategy and often end up reformulating an improved plan of attack.

Each year, teams competing through First Lego League are given a mission for them and their robots to accomplish. Teams must also do a research project. This year's mission challenged teams to focus on the needs of the senior citizen community.

For their research portion of the project, the Robo Nuts determined that technology is helpful for seniors and that connecting them to it takes a little convincing.

"Showing them 'why' opens the door to other solutions," Van Kleek said.

The team, which is not affiliated with any school or group, performed a public-service announcement skit demonstrating how seniors could benefit from something like a smartphone app that could remind them to take their medication.

"We're doing a lot more than making robots do stuff," Michael Maurer said.

The state championship tournament will be held the Washington Technology Magnet School in St. Paul.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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