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Team building: MAHS robotics team needs diverse skills

Morris Area High School sophomore Michael Romberger works on the arm of a robot made by the school's Plaid Pillagers robotics team. Rae Yost/Stevens County Times1 / 2
Plaid Pillagers robotics team member Ben Giese talks with his teammates at Morris Area High School. Kurtis Kill is in the background. Rae Yost/Stevens County Times2 / 2

The room is a combination science and engineering lab and machine shop. The sound of a saw buzzing is heard one minute while, in the next, a student starts a drill. In one corner, a student is making reservations needed for a stay at an upcoming competition in Duluth.

The work in the Morris Area High School Plaid Pillagers' robotics room happens each day after school and on Saturdays for several months. Students build a robot from scratch that must move, pick up objects and perform other tasks as the team competes against other robotics teams at regional events.

"It's not just for those thinking of going into engineering," said Wendy De Rung, one of several team advisers "It's logistics, it's shop work..."

De Rung and fellow adviser Darek Romberger each have children on the robotics team.

Romberger is a custodian at the University of Minnesota Morris. He decided to help this year and now, "I'm addicted."

His has experience as a machinist and in fabrication, which can help students when they are building, repairing and making changes to the robot.

Romberger's son Michael was making one of the changes as he added a new piece to one arm of the robot. The arm did not perform well at a recent competition in Grand Forks, North Dakota, Michael Romberger said.

"We didn't do real (well). We fixed a lot of things after that," Michael Romberger said.

The student works on the mechanical aspects of the robot while others work in different roles."It kind of depends on which way you go," Romberger said of students finding their niches on the team.

De Rung said the team needs students who can weld, saw, program the robot, raise money to help with competition expenses and do many other tasks.

Her daughter Mara is in her third year on the team. The team has five to six core members who are usually working each day after school and on Saturdays, Mara De Rung said. The addition of Saturdays to the work schedule allowed students with weekday conflicts to be involved with robotics, Mara De Rung said.

Students must log 30 hours during the robotics season to compete in regional competitions, Mara De Rung said.

"The experience you get here is the same as with any other team sport," Mara De Rung said. "There's a different dynamic than there might be in athletics but we are still a team."

While Mara De Rung spoke, team members were operating equipment and asking each other questions to double check the next step.

The skills learned on the robotics team are real-world skills. Former team member Jena De Rung has learned that those skills apply to her college classes. Jena De Rung is a sophomore chemical engineering major at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Jena De Rung is Mara's sister.

The robotics organization is "a very professional organization," Jena De Rung said. Competition judges talk to students as they would talk to adults in the work world, she said. She was helping the MAHS team while on spring break.

She misses the challenge and the sense of accomplishment she received while on the team, Jena De Rung said.

Team members said the season is a challenge to build the robot and have it do well in regional competitions. Competitions can draw teams from across the U.S. and from other countries, Michael Romberger said.

The team learns from watching other competitors, Mara De Rung said. "We saw a lot of good strategies in (Grand Forks)," she said. The Pillagers planned to apply some of the strategies to this week's competition in Duluth.

Although team members are learning throughout the robotics season, there is other teaching that happens outside the robotics room.

Darek Romberger said his work with the robotics team got him interested in computer programming.

"I'd like to learn programming," Romberger said, "Michael is going to help me with that."