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Park High School robotics team back for more this year

With most of the Park High Robotics Team graduating last year, it's a whole new ball game.

Last year, the Park Data Bits robot hurled basketballs at targets in various competitions, ending with a state title at the first Minnesota State High School League-sponsored competition. This year, the robot is tossing Frisbees.

After a state title, there were many more students interested in the robotics team this year. With about 20 new members, it was like "herding cats," said Jim Huber, head technical advisor for the team. He works full time as an employee trainer for Delta Airlines and spends more than another 30 hours a week during the competition season with the team.

Park chemistry teacher Mike Simurdiak is team advisor.

Some of the team members from last year, such as Chris Braun, who drove the robot, are back as mentors to the rookies. They spend time helping the rookies work out the bugs and focusing on what's needed.

"I have no life for a while," he said last week. "It's all college and robotics."

Robotics teams from Woodbury and East Ridge high schools and the Math and Science Academy in Woodbury also compete under the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) program, but Park was the only school invited to state last year.

There is competition among the schools, but FIRST competitions also include a cooperative component. The district teams share information and the use of some technology.

Steven Matheny is the lone senior on the team and was on the winning team last year. The new members crowd around him and listen as he tells them about their competitions, such as the one in Duluth last weekend, where they went up against nearly 100 U.S. teams and two teams from Japan.

One of Park's secrets to success, and where many teams don't measure up, is that they "over engineer," according to Matheny.

Huber's motto is "keep it simple." The robot, built from a kit that FIRST sends them, also has to be durable and stand up to being transported and bumped around. Teams can add additional parts but they must be ones that are available at a reasonable price to all teams.

"It's real-world engineering," Huber said. "Most of the new members had never used hand tools before. We had a lot of people who wanted to be programmers."

Team members learn to think for themselves, Huber said, because it's the first time they're confronted with coming up with a design that didn't come from a teacher or parent.

Ruth Majia said being on the robotics team has helped her learn to manage her time and keep team activities balanced with school work.

"I came knowing nothing," said Chad Lo, adding that he was looking to do "something electrical."

Assembling the robot was of interest to Pam Ferraro because she has some skills she learned from her father, a mechanic.

"It sounded cool, but it's more fun than that," said Sierra Oden.

The team is also on sounder financial footing this year. Because of the team's state win, it was invited to lunch at the 3M-Cottage Grove campus last spring. The team got a chance to talk with engineers and those interested in their robot. The team also gets help and would not be able to compete without 3M's help. Several company mentors also help the team.

Judy Spooner
Judy Spooner is the longest-serving staff writer at the South Washington County Bulletin. Spooner, who covers education and features in addition to writing a weekly column, has been with the newspaper for over 30 years.
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