Spartan robotics builds the road to state


Submitted by Daniel Ellis

Seniors Grant Gunderson and Michael Hall along with junior Michaela Polley watch their robot in a competition. “For the first part of the competition the robot has to be pre-programmed and that’s very challenging because there are so many things that can go wrong,” Hall said.

Robotics students spend hours a week in the lab. They work tirelessly over months in order to create complex robots with hundreds of parts. Each robot is programmed with thousands of strings of code. Everything leads up to the state competition.

With less than two years of experience, the SPA Robotics team is heading into this year’s state qualifying tournaments following an impressive first year result, and are hoping for an even better showing starting this December. With this goal in mind, the team remains hard at work, collaborating as a group in order to succeed.

Seniors Daniel Ellis and Michael Hall are leaders in the lab. Ellis is what’s called a team build captain, which means he coaches younger students on how to create their robots. The final competition robots are the result of a collective effort.

“It’s a really team oriented competition,” Ellis said.

Teamwork is critical in robotics because of the difficulty that the class presents.

“For the first part of the competition the robot has to be pre-programmed and that’s very challenging because there are so many things that can go wrong,” Hall said.

The team also submits an engineering notebook, which documents their trials and errors during the building process. Judges score this along with the robot’s performance against other team’s robots. In the end, it’s not just the robot itself that gets judged, it’s the group and how they work together to create a final product.  

It’s a really team oriented competition

— Daniel Ellis

SPA Robotics made it to the semifinals in the state tournament last year and hopes to advance even further this season. Ellis believes that the team’s biggest accomplishment so far was making it to state last year.

“That was just really huge because we were a first year team and that’s not very common,” he said.

Making it all the way won’t happen without some difficulty, though. The robotics class challenges students, academically and socially. Academically, students learn how to code and assemble robots, neither of which are basic knowledge. Socially, being a part of robotics means students need to communicate with their team. Everyone needs to be on the same page in order to put their minds together to create something great. Once this happens, the team achieves excellence.

“Once you get your ideas through and it gets executed really well I think that’s one of the most rewarding parts,” Ellis said, “but you have to work for it and I really like that aspect.”

Hall feels the same way.

“You have this idea in your head and there’s no guarantee that it’ll work, and then going through the whole process and at the end seeing it actually work the way you intended…that’s really fun. Doesn’t always happen, but when it does it’s pretty great,” he said.

Currently, the robotics team is working on two robots, both of which are designed to lift up blocks and put them on a shelf. Additionally, Ellis and Hall are working together on a self driving car as a part of their independent study of the class.

“We designed and 3D printed this little car and we’re in the process of using a neural net to train it to drive. Essentially how it works is we show it a ton of examples of, like, ‘if the road looks like this, you should turn left,’ and then it slowly begins to associate the picture with the action it should take,” Hall said.

This project is just a small part of what Hall and Ellis bring to the lab. They both show great dedication to robotics, proving that they will help the team advance to state. Before this happens, SPA competes in two qualifying competitions in December and January. In these competitions, the team will compete in a two-team alliance against another set of two teams in order to advance. Even with this upcoming pressure, the team tries to remain focused and have fun. The class encourages free thinking and imagination and generates fun for the students who take it. Ellis provided a good way to keep things in perspective:

“There’s no real right way to build a robot,” he said.

With their impressive record and intricately build designs, it’s easy to forget that anyone can take robotics as a class. More than anything, the class itself teaches teamwork and dedication. Students are forced to communicate their ideas and come to a consensus as a team, even if this proves to be a challenge. While learning to deal with these ideas may seem intimidating, the class is in fact very loosely structured. It requires imagination and creativity and the effect of a team full of these values is what drove SPA to the state tournament last year. While it’s only on it’s second year, the group has a lot to show for itself and the class teaches life skills beyond coding and building. Ellis described his feelings towards robotics like this:

“You get a lot out of the class,” he said, “nothing that any other class can teach you. It really does a lot.”