Did you know that robotics is an officially recognized high school "sport" in the Minnesota State High School League?

The Pine River-Backus robotics team meets after school for "practice" just like other sports teams do. The team also travels to compete with other schools in events and tournaments. There are roughly 150 robotics teams in Minnesota, and nearly 4,000 registered robotics teams worldwide.

All teams registered with FIRST Robotics Challenge, or FRC, follow an annual cycle of building a new robot each year to compete in fresh games and challenges that are organized and published by FRC. The game that ends up being played in the tournaments and events each year typically involves short, intense matches on a 50-foot long playing field with teams of three vs. three.

Pine River-Backus' robot hangs from a balanced beam during a recent competition.
Contributed / Andrew Rudlang
Pine River-Backus' robot hangs from a balanced beam during a recent competition. Contributed / Andrew Rudlang

The robots can sometimes be almost as large as a washing machine, and often weigh over 100 pounds. Parts of a match require the robot to be programmed to drive itself, but the bulk of a match typically involves a student driving and commanding the robot via remote control.

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On Friday, Oct. 29, the PR-B robotics team hauled their 110-pound robot and tools down to Upsala, Minnesota, to compete in the final competition for the 2021 season amongst 15 other schools. Despite roughly half of the team graduating last May, including the primary driver, the remaining students took over the reins eagerly and played valiantly through roughly a dozen individual matches.

At the end of the day the team and the robot returned with a second-place trophy for their efforts.

The conclusion of the Northern Minnesota Robotics Conference tournament marks the end of the official 2021 season for the robotics team. In January, FRC will release a brand-new game with new rules and requirements, and the team will need to build a new robot from scratch that will then compete in a regional event in Duluth this spring.

The Duluth regional will be sponsored by FIRST and will have 60 or more teams competing across multiple days, from March 2-5.

The time between the release of the new game specs in January and the competition in March will be a busy time for the PR-B robotics team. We would like to recruit additional members as there is much work to be done, and also to share the fun.

Prior experience is not required, just a genuine interest and willingness to learn. The overarching goal of FIRST is to give students hands-on experience and inspire them to take greater interest in STEM-related fields.

While participating in robotics, students can have opportunities to try out or deep-dive into many different skill sets - from electrical work to machining, design and assembly, prototyping, wood working, welding, marketing, 3D printing/CAD, graphics (including design of shirts, buttons, tattoos/stickers), photography and videography (often related to team marketing), specializing in season rules and match strategy, even social media and more!

Some students like to try lots of different things and others enjoy specializing in specific areas once they’ve discovered something they deeply enjoy. There is a lot of fun to be had and many opportunities to learn.

Interested students can contact the coaches: Mike Shetka (mshetka@prbschools.org) or Andrew Rudlang (arudlang@prbschools.org).

Andrew Rudlang is a coach with the Pine River-Backus robotics team.