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FIRST Robotics: Final Four with robots

Morris Area's Plaid Pillagers work on their FIRST Robotics entry. Photo courtesy Sally Finzel.1 / 3
Plaid Pillager Ray Finzel and other FIRST Robotics team members await backstage for their turn in competition at the FIRST Robotics Milwaukee regional last month. Photo courtesy Sally Finzel.2 / 3
The Morris Area's FIRST Robotics entry, almost ready for competition. Photo courtesy Sally Finzel.3 / 3

The Plaid Pillagers are marauding again -- this time with a robot that can really get the job done.

Morris Area's FIRST Robotics team will compete in the Northstar Regional competition in Minneapolis on Friday and Saturday, April 3-4.

Morris Area's team will compete at Mariucci Arena on the University of Minnesota campus from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

It's the second regional competition this year for the MAHS robotics team -- the team competed in Milwaukee last month -- and the third since the program was started last year.

The concept is simple: promote science and technology through a fun and challenging process. And, coincidentally, the Northstar Regional is held at the same time as an event after which FIRST is patterning its experience.

"It's really an amazing experience," said Eric Buchanan, Morris Area's FIRST Robotics advisor. "The robots are bigger and better, they're smashing into things, shooting things out, flying around, pulling trailers, there are mascots, people cheering. It's really all the excitement of the NCAA's Final Four, only with robots."

FIRST is an acronym for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.

FIRST was founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen, an inventor, entrepreneur, and advocate for science and technology, who might be best known to the general public as the inventor of the Segway Personal Transporter.

FIRST is a non-profit charity that is designed to help students discover the fun and inspire participation in science and technology.

In FIRST Robotics, students build a robot using a standard kit of parts and common rules, then work with mentors to use the robot to play a game, which this year is called "Lunacy" and is based on the space program.

Nicknamed the Plaid Pillagers -- Plaid being an acronym for Pursuit of Leadership And Innovative Design -- the team began last year, with students in grades 7-12. They are organized into six product development groups covering business and logistics, propulsion, articulation, construction, programming and arena modeling.

The Pillagers placed a disappointing 56th among 60 teams at the Milwaukee regional last year, but they weren't displeased by the experience.

It took three weeks just to figure out what to do with much of the robot kit last year. This year, the team was testing drive systems the day they received their parts, said senior Ray Finzel.

Last year, the team struggled to modify their robot when they discovered it was 20 pounds too heavy. This year, their robot -- which features a more sophisticated drive system and design -- was seven pounds under weight.

The team's "pit" at the regional was nonexistent. This year, their crate opens into an organized workspace, and the team will add a banner to its unique, plaid ensemble.

"Last year was a disaster," Buchanan said. "We had parts and tools laying around, missing. This year we're able to keep things cleaned and organized."

The Pillagers also have absorbed knowledge about the competitions -- called "co-op-etitions" in the spirit of FIRST's emphasis on "gracious professionalism."

The team scouted all the other teams and made notations about strengths and weaknesses. Team member Katie Monroe devised a spreadsheet to organize the scouting reports and the team went over them the night before the regional began. Then, those team members meet with the robot drivers to discuss strategy for playing the game.

But the competitiveness isn't cutthroat.

"I had no experience," said Matt Cotter, this year's driver. "In a practice game, I didn't even know what I was supposed to do. There was a veteran team there and I asked them, 'What am I supposed to do?' They said, 'OK, follow me.' "

The process mirrors that faced by most engineers and scientists in everyday life, said Buchanan, himself an engineer.

"You have to do real-life budgeting," he said. "You never have enough money or enough time and you figure it out. We didn't have enough money, so we cut some stuff, went as cheap on the robot as we could. We used landscaping material because it's lightweight and cheap. We went to the local hardware store and you just kind of make stuff."

FIRST stipulates that each team can spend $3,500 on their robot. The Plaid Pillagers spent $500.

The Pillagers improved markedly their second year in Milwaukee, finishing 31st among 53 teams, some of which have large budgets and large firms backing them financially and with expertise.

"We got compliments from other teams because they could see we mostly used what we had in the kit," Buchanan said. "

Raising money and awareness of the program is another of FIRST's components. The Pillagers received donations of money and expertise from many businesses and people around the area.

It's all necessary. The kit of parts and the first regional entry fee totalled $6,000. The entry fee for the Northstar Regional is $4,000, Buchanan said.

But the obstacles aren't stopping the diehards. FIRST struggled to get teams for its inaugural competition 18 years ago. Now, there are 1,700 teams nationwide. In 2006, Minnesota's first regional drew two teams. Last year, 50 teams entered and 80 are expected this year.

The rewards are there, too. Buchanan said that, nationwide, there are scholarships worth $9 million available to FIRST students.

"What I hope, over time, as the programs get more mature, is seeing a lot of the things in FIRST dovetailing into the classroom," he said. "It takes time to build that infrastructure, but I see a lot of potential there."