Two dozen members of the Panthinators robotics club at Spring Lake Park High School recently sent their first robot through competition.
The road to competition started on a cold Saturday morning in January. The Panthinators met to watch the unveiling of the specs for this year’s FIRST Robotics Competition. It was an exciting moment. The club was just making their return to the high school two years ago when the pandemic struck. This was their first chance to compete, and the unveiling made it real.
“Afterwards we were just trying to figure out what to do,” says Jonas, a freshman. “We had to make a plan.”
The two dozen regular members of the club chose sub teams based on their interests. Building the robot entails mechanics and electrical wiring. There’s programming and driving and the business side of sponsors and promotion.
Quinton, a senior, worked on the build team. He’ll be headed to Dunwoody next year to study architecture. Rey, a freshman, ran the social media and liked getting fun videos of everyone just being themselves. Jonas, a freshman, worked to program the robot and was also on the drive team.
“I was interested in programming before, but I wasn’t great at it,” says Jonas. “I got so much better this year and now I’m definitely more interested.”
Under the guidance of Karen Kutz, high school STEM teacher, and Kyle Greene, high school science teacher, everyone found their niche. January to April was a blur. They worked after school and weekends to build, wire, program and promote their robot. It was the first year for many members which meant a steep learning curve.
“All of it was really fun,” says Thomas, a sophomore who worked on the build team and has an interest in mechanical engineering. “After a day of school, it was nice to come here and just be able to work with my hands for a few hours.”
First robot, first competition
All of the hard work culminated at the University of Minnesota, April 7-9. This was the club’s first competition. Karen cites two elements of the program that helped create a great experience for students. One is the emphasis on “coopertition” and the other is “gracious professionalism.”
The Panthinators experienced these firsthand as the competition began. At the Thursday practice, a lot of things went wrong. They got tips and help from other teams and were able to get their robot to drive on its own and do some shooting.
“It [the competition] didn’t go super great,” says Sasha, a junior, who worked on the code team. “But, it was a lot of fun. We got a lot of help from other teams and a lot of learning that we should take into next year.”
Club members emphasized that the experience was really about the challenge and not competing against each other. The focus on problem solving and working together are skills they will take with them into the future.
“The best part,” says Jonas, “was really seeing a robot working.”
Reflecting and looking ahead
Now that the competition is over, the club is catching its breath after several intense months. They’ve done a mind dump – how did it go? What did we learn? What did we not know that we wished we did? They are leaving notes for next year’s Panthinators.
“I think every year we’ll get better,” says Marissa, a junior. “Most of us are new to the team and will be coming back.”
“We’re going to take what we learned and do better next year,” says Thomas.
“It's cooler than I thought it would be,” says Lotus, a senior who wants to study biochemistry and worked on the business team. “Even for someone like me, who isn’t interested in building stuff or coding, there is a place. I definitely recommend it.”
The Panthinators, oh yes, they’ll be back at it next year.