Juneau high schoolers headed to world robotics championship

A high school robotics team from Juneau is competing in the world championship this month. It’s the first time a team from Southeast Alaska has made it so far in this event.

Thunder Mountain High School’s state champion robotics team lives up to its name: Trial and Error. At an after-school practice just a week out from the FIRST championship, they’re still tinkering.

Noatak Post is one of eight members of the team. He’s been doing robotics for over 10 years.

“We use a lot of duct tape to kind of try things out, and if that works, then maybe we’ll screw it down,” Post said. “Sometimes we don’t, but usually we try to screw it down.”

Noatak Post (left) and Teilhard Buzzell work on their robot at Thunder Mountain High School on April 9, 2019. (Photo by Zoe Grueskin/KTOO)

Robotics is a team sport. Together, students build the robots and write computer code to control their movements. They’re designed to accomplish specific mechanical tasks like climbing a ladder or, in this case, gathering up blocks and balls.

“Every year there’s a theme, and this year it’s kind of space travel,” explained Post. “(The blocks and balls) are supposed to be minerals that we’ve mined or something like that.”

The team has faced this challenge before, but since then they’ve completely changed the design of their robot. It now features a device they call “the popper” that scoops up blocks and balls and shoots them out a curved plastic tube into the point-scoring area.

Or, anyway, it’s supposed to. It’s not quite working at the moment.

In less than a week, the team heads to their robotics league’s world championship in Houston, where they’ll face off against teams from around the U.S. and dozens of other countries.

The fact that their robot isn’t exactly functional right now doesn’t worry Eli Douglas. He said they’ll probably be making changes right up until the event.

“We’ve done it just about every time we go to a competition,” he said. “So we’re somewhat confident it will work out.”

Douglas said his favorite part of doing robotics is having a shared project to work on with his friends.

“You know we’ll see each other in hall and talk about the robot. Like, oh, I was thinking about the robot. We should try this later. It’s definitely kept me up at night before, and I’m sure I could say the same for everyone else. Just thinking about different mechanisms that could work for different problems,” said Douglas.

Douglas and his teammates Noatak Post and Riley Sikes have been building robots together since they were all second graders at Auke Bay Elementary School. They estimate they’ve each spent around 300 hours building robots just this season.

(From left) Eli Douglas, Noatak Post and Riley Sikes at a Thunder Mountain High School robotics practice on April 9, 2019. The trio has been building robots together since second grade. (Photo by Zoe Grueskin/KTOO)
(From left) Eli Douglas, Noatak Post and Riley Sikes at a Thunder Mountain High School robotics practice on April 9, 2019. The trio has been building robots together since second grade. (Photo by Zoe Grueskin/KTOO)

Now that they’re seniors, Post said they’re building better robots than ever. He credits that to a major shift in strategy. In the past, he said, they’ve often gotten hung up on one idea, not realizing it won’t work until it’s too late.

“And so, with that in mind, we kind of as a team agreed that if we were ever getting really kind of stuck with an idea, and it just didn’t seem to be working, we would scrap the whole thing, take apart the whole robot, spend a Saturday night taking it all apart and start from scratch. Just really emphasizing an engineering process and trying new things as often as we could,” said Post.

Amber Cunningham is an assistant coach for Thunder Mountain’s robotics teams. She said Trial and Error’s approach can be stressful for the coaches, but she admires it.

“It’s so hard to let go of something you’ve been working on, and their ability to do that and not let them stress out and just go, ‘Hey, you know what? This isn’t working, we’re going to start all over, let’s do something different,’ is just pretty amazing,” Cunningham said.

Post said robotics gives him a new perspective. And he loves the community.

“You come to these competitions where it’s, like, teams from either all over the region, the state, and now all over the world, and you’re gonna be able to see how they have approached the same challenge as you, probably in completely different ways, and it’s just really cool to see all the different ideas people come up with, and the camaraderie that comes from it and working on the robot together,” Post said.

By the end of practice, “the popper” still isn’t working right. But the team still has a whole week before the world championship. Plenty of time for Trial and Error.

Editor’s note: Trial and Error, from Juneau’s Thunder Mountain High School, is the first team from Southeast Alaska to compete in the world championship for FIRST Tech Challenge, a league for students in grades 7-12. Teams from Skagway have competed in previous world championships in the FIRST LEGO League, for students in grades 4-8.

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