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Competition is heating up for local high school robotics enthusiasts

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After an exceptional rookie campaign last year, the Elmira District Secondary School’s robotics team is looking to take a step forward at this year’s series of FIRST robotics competitions.

Evan Courtis, Jacob Cornwall, Peter Giesbrecht and Aaron Crawford led the Elmira District Secondary School robotics team to a third-place finish at the FIRST Robotics Waterloo regional competition Mar. 20-22 at the University of Waterloo. [Scott Barber / The Observer]
Evan Courtis, Jacob Cornwall, Peter Giesbrecht and Aaron Crawford led the Elmira District Secondary School robotics team to a third-place finish at the FIRST Robotics Waterloo regional competition Mar. 20-22 at the University of Waterloo. [Scott Barber / The Observer]
With a third-place showing at the regional event at the University of Waterloo last weekend, the season is off to a great start.

“We’ve got about 40 students on the team now, which is up from last year,” coach Ron Fletcher said. “It’s a great group; everybody is really excited about it and I’m really proud of all the work the students have put in to get to this point.”

And the crash course season certainly demands a lot of work from participants.

Each January, FIRST Canada (for inspiration and recognition of science and technology) unveils an entirely new competition, requiring teams to design, build and program a unique robot from scratch.

Then, the race is on to create a machine that meets the organization’s strict guidelines before an official inspection in mid-February. It’s no easy feat.

“It takes a lot of creativity from the group to come up with different ideas for the robot,” Fletcher said. “The most important part, is allowing the team to learn through trial and error. That’s really the best way to go about it, and it’s an excellent lesson for our students.”

This season, the game involves stacking rectangular plastic boxes, or “totes,” along with large upright recycling bins into specific locations for points. The more totes and bins the robot can stack in 90 seconds, the more points the team receives.

And while the idea may seem a bit monotonous at first, watching four robots speed around a small arena, furiously stacking and spinning while trying hard to not knock over their stacks, is very exciting.

“The event at the University of Waterloo went very well,” Fletcher said. “You just never know how things are going to go, because it’s a robot that we build ourselves and so some days it can be a bit finicky. But for the most part, our robot is running well and our kids had a great time.”

The team is split up into a number of groups, each with their own specific role and functions. There are media members who photograph events and create a video package. There are programmers and builders and drivers. And there’s also a business team which conducts a presentation for the FIRST Canada executive.

The learning opportunities are all across the board, pushing students to think outside the box.

And there’s also a teamwork element added to the mix, as schools must select other teams to compete alongside them in on-the-fly alliances. At the University of Waterloo competition, EDSS matched up with Woodland Christian High School.

On Wednesday, the group packed up Sir Lancer Bot and trekked up to North Bay for another competition. If all goes well, the team could book a ticket to the world championships in St. Louis Missouri next month, just like they did last year.

“We feel really good about our ability to compete in North Bay,” Fletcher said before the trip. And it’s been a real team effort from the whole community that has made the team so successful.

“We have such an advantage here in Elmira because of the sense of community everyone feels,” Fletcher said. “From the service clubs through local businesses and EDSS alumni, I can’t stress enough how incredible the support has been.”

Last year, the club spent some $35,000 between materials and travel expenses, much of it covered by sponsors like Systematix, Rockwell Automation along with the local Kiwanis and Lions clubs

The money is well spent, Fletcher said.

“It really is a great experience for our students to get involved with something that is fun while at the same time there are so many positive learning opportunities.”

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