LA CRESCENT — With just three weeks left, the Sir Lancer Bots were in the midst of a brainstorm on a recent weekday.
All of the team’s hard work is for the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Steamworks competition in April, the first robotics competition to take place in the La Crosse region. It has been a long time coming for La Crescent High School’s Sir Lancer Bots, founded in 2009.
“We’ve been talking about this all nine years,” coach Mark Moulton said. “We wanted to make it happen; it was a real grassroots effort ... We’re only here because we have had so much community support.”
The team prides itself on getting students involved in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.
“I was recruited by Paul Ulland (another Sir Lancer Bots coach) to attend a competition,” Moulton said. “At the event my wife turned to me, and she said, ‘You’re starting a team, aren’t you?’”
Sir Lancer Bots’ first year only had 11 students. Today, there are 26 students preparing for the upcoming competitions. The team meets five days a week — and Saturdays — to prepare for the competition.
“We are very committed to running a student-led program,” assistant coach Randy Hafner said. “They come up with the ideas, how things are going to work. They are the ones building.”
Along with the challenge details, the robotics kit is given to the team on Jan. 7, and the budget limit is $4,000. Everyone gets the same materials and budget,a and from there gets creative.
By Feb. 21, the final version of the robot must be assembled. The team cannot make any more changes after that. This is to ensure that every team across the country has been given equal assembly time; there are multiple competitions on different dates leading up to the championship competition.
The robot must accomplish three tasks at the competition. The goal is to have the robot assist in a long-distance airship race. The robot must collect fuel—or wiffle balls, in this case—install gears into the airship and climb a rope up the airship at the end.
Every action that the robot successfully completes will give the team points.
“If you achieve it faster, that’s a ton of points as far as the game goes,” Ryan said. “The climbing part is really different. They’ve done climbing before, but it was usually more solid.”
Sir Lancer Bots is divided into the builders and the programmers. The builders physically build the robot, while the programmers tell the robot what to do using a computer program where they write commands. The robot has a roboRIO—or brain—that tells the body everything it has to do, accessed through wireless internet.
The actual building of the robot uses many prototypes. The team has gone through four to five for each subsystem. Everything is a variable. They have to test the wheels. They have to test the frame’s strength; it currently holds up to 150 pounds of theater stage weights. So far, the robot can hold up to 43 units of fuel.
“We are really thankful for the tools we have available to us,” 17-year-old design team manager Jordan Van Lin said, pointing to a plasma cutter, shop tools, a 3-D printer, and more.
Although team members have their eyes on nationals this year, they work with the other teams in the region to brainstorm. There are online group chats and demonstrations hosted by local universities that build the six-week project in three days where students gather to bounce ideas off one another.
The coaches and students agreed that skills acquired in the program go further than an after-school club.
“There are a lot of management skills,” 18-year-old team captain Turner Ryan said. “You learn how to see the chemistry between certain groups. You learn how to work on deadlines, how to be efficient.”
Ryan was elected as captain after he worked as build manager last year. He plans to go to the University of Minnesota Twin Cities to study mechanical engineering next fall.
“There are some kids who want to go into mechanical engineering, or some want to be technicians. Others have no clue what they want to do, but they just think it’s a lot of fun. It’s really hands-on,” he said.