The sounds of loud rock music filled the halls as teenagers in matching T-shirts in a variety of colors rushed around or stopped to talk to old friends. The crowd cheered as yellow wiffle balls flew through the air in an attempt by a team to score points. The atmosphere was energizing and chaotic.
Soon an announcer could be heard directing students to get prepared as referees in familiar black-and-white-striped shirts took their position.
Believe it or not, these were the sights and sounds of teenagers demonstrating their science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills at the FIRST Robotics Regional Competition at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center last week.
Carlton County teams from Barnum, Esko and Moose Lake took part in the regional event again this year.
The students also learn "gracious professionalism" — basically how to teach and help students from other schools with their robots even though they will compete against each other, according to the FIRST robotics competition.
Last year, the Esko SubZero Robotics Team 5690 went on to compete in the FIRST Championship tournament in St. Louis, Mo. (and even invited juniors and seniors from the rookie Moose Lake Circuit Breakers team to join them).
This year's season officially started Jan. 7 with a kickoff ceremony at the University of Minnesota-Duluth when the new theme was unveiled and students received kit parts for their robot.
The various teams had six weeks to work together to build and perfect their robot. Students learn real life skills such as teamwork, programming, planning, media and marketing, as well as fundraising to buy parts for the robots and cover transportation costs.
They also improve their STEM skills in areas such as electronics, pneumatics and mechanics.
Sometimes teams collaborate to come up with ideas and strategies.
A Jan. 8 post on the Esko team's Facebook page noted the following: "As a young team we are always looking for ways to expand our knowledge base. ... Tonight we gathered together to watch some of the live updates and Q&A's from Snow Problem, Robot In 3 Days and Ri3d Indiana. Thank you so much to all of the teams for providing all of us in FRC with such a good way to kick off our season. Your expertise is invaluable!"
Most teams work on their robots after school until 5 p.m. unless a mentor can stay later. The students also work any time they can on weekends as well as attend practice scrimmages.
The robots needed to be completed, tested and sealed in a plastic bag by Feb. 21 in order to compete at the DECC.
The teams practiced by setting up scrimmages before that date to work the bugs out of their robots and problem-solve with other teams.
The matches began with the robots performing on automatic without being controlled by a person.
They received points for passing the baseline, one high goal, three low goals and rotor turning. This lasted for 15 seconds.
The next part of the match was controlled by the team's operator via remote control. For this year's event, the robot could score points by shooting wiffle balls into a boiler in the corner of the game field or deliver large yellow gears to the "airship," a platform that one of the team members stands on to take the gear from the robot.
During the last 30 seconds of the game, a team member throws a rope for the 120-pound robot to climb up while rock music blares and fans cheer and clap for their favorite teams.
Each match lasts two minutes and 30 seconds.
The teams from Carlton County are relative newbies, with Esko in its third year of participation in robotics and the others in their second year.
Although Esko has 31 students on the team this year, they lost a lot of experience from last year.
"We lost a major part of our team to graduation; we had a lot of senior leaders," said Ian Rossetti, a programmer in his third year with the program.
Rossetti said he liked the climbing part of the challenge.
"We drive up to the rope with the little crank thing in the front and it pulls our robot up," he explained.
During the first few matches of competition, their robot had some issues, but Friday afternoon it performed great.
"We built ours to get the gears," Rossetti said. "It's a design strategy, you build your robot around what gets you the most points."
The young teams learn new things every year.
"We learned not to rush and use our time wisely," said Sam Cloutier, a freshman on the Barnum Bombatrons team. "We have definitely improved our skills.
The second-year robotics team member said he liked this year's event better as it was more of a challenge with the gears.
"Last year our robot had a basic drive and an arm that wasn't programmed, so all it could do was drive around," said Moose Lake senior Future-Hope Vang, who handles media and business for the team. "This year we had a ball shooter and rope climb that required extra programming, so our robot was much better than last year's. The three elements of this year's challenge was to deliver gears, shoot balls and climb a rope. Our robot was able to do all three."
Vang noted their robot was "much better than last year's," but unlucky alliances and the inclusion of human players on the airship meant they were not able to place as high as they wanted to.
Both Esko and Barnum ranked lower than last year.
"Our robot did well," said Barnum technology coordinator Evan Lembke. "There are three teams on an alliance and the other teams did not do well. It's just luck of the draw."
There are three teams on each end of the game field, red on one end and blue on the other end. The teams are placed together at random, until the final day of the event. Then the teams with the highest scores can scout teams and ask them to join on their alliance for the final game.
Although Barnum's robot performed well, they did not get asked to join another alliance.
"We are very pleased with our performance at the Lake Superior Regionals. It started rough, but our team didn't give up. They worked on the robot until it was running great," a Facebook post noted. "Each member of the Bombatrons was important to our team's success this year and we are thankful for them all."
Lemke said that several of the team members have already started working towards next year's competition. He added that the experience the team came away with after the first year made a night-and-day difference for this year's event.
Esko had the honor of being asked by the Fergus Falls Otterbots to join their final alliance and the combined teams took runner up.
Esko is headed to one more regional competition in Iowa in a few weeks before they end the season. They decided they wanted to pursue a second regional event this year to expand their experience and to meet new teams.
"It's a real fun time," Rossetti said.