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Marion High School robotics team gets taste of international competition

  • The Marion High School robotics team puts Atlas through its paces.

    The Marion High School robotics team puts Atlas through its paces.
    Photo provided

updated: 5/24/2017 6:33 PM

MARION - Have you ever wanted to build a robot? We all dream about the possibilities, but few of us actually commit the time and training it takes. That's not so for local students at Marion High School, whose year-long attempt to build a robot resulted in competing at a world-wide robotics championship in St. Louis.

Marion High School students Will Ziehm, 18, Nick Kucharski, 17, and Emily Kucharski, 15, joined Coach Mark Wallace and other members of the Robotics Club April 26-29 to travel to the FIRST [For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology] Robotics Championship at Union Station. The team competed against several other robotics clubs, including teams from Taiwan, London, Latvia and Russia.

"We finished 25 out of 64 teams," Ziehm said.

The team's success came from years of experience and training. Wallace said he began the club six years ago, after several years of being approached by interested students.

That year, Wallace had 12-15 interested students on his team. This year, 28 students remained active during the school year, including six seniors who graduated on Thursday.

Emily Kucharski said that while the experience was exciting, she was also nervous to attend.

"In my opinion, I thought that all the teams would be better than us because we don't have a lot of funding, but I'm really surprised at how well we did," she said.

Ziehm said the experience was that much more exciting for him because it was his last year to be on the MHS team.

"Just to go and see all the teams that have outperformed everyone in the country, that was kind of exciting. And as someone who's done this for the past four years, my last year finally getting to do something like that was really exciting and I'm really proud," he said.

Ziehm said the team got the opportunity to attend the World Championship through a wild-card drawing system.

"What they started doing recently at Worlds is they have a wild card, and so for teams that don't make it, you get drawings put into a basket for the number of years you've been a team," he said.

With 10 students to a team, MHS had three teams this past year, including its first all-girls team.

The three MHS teams are known as the Transistor Titans, Ohms Olympians, and the Mechanical Muses, the latter of which was the all-girls' team. Wallace said each team uses a Greek or Roman name for its team name.

Atlas, the robot built by Nick Kucharski and Ziehm's team, was the first robot at the regional competition to be successfully complete the lifting portion of the task.

Ziehm said that teams earn points for more than just their robot's progress.

"There's a list of awards that's given out at each tournament," he explained. "You can get awards for your robot doing well in competition or you can also get awards for your engineering notebook, how well you've documented your progress, and also outreach in the community. Those are all ranked in importance for the top six or seven and [those teams] get to go on to the next level."

Nick said the Mechanical Muses' robot, named Hestia after the Greek goddess of the hearth, was the robot chosen to compete at the state competition in Chicago. The Ohms Olympians' robot received the wild card to go to the World Championship.

Representing Southern Illinois

While MHS is not the only robotics team in the area -- high schools in Murphysboro and Carbondale also have teams -- it is one of the only teams in the region that competes in the FIRST Robotics Competition, a school-year long event in which students receive guidelines in September for the specific robot they are to build for regional, state, super-regional, and world events.

"We like this one better because it's more challenging and there's less time to design your own pieces," Wallace said.

The FIRST Competition began in 1989 in Manchester, New Hampshire by award-winning inventor Dean Kamen, who invented the first wearable insulin pump for diabetics.

According to the FIRST website, the competition's mission is to "inspire young people to be science and technology leaders, by engaging them in exciting mentor-based programs that build science, engineering, and technology skills, that inspire innovation, and that foster well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication, and leadership."

Ziehm said the teams receive information about the year's challenge in September, and have all year to perfect their robots.

"Every year, there's a different challenge that comes out that a robot has to complete," he said. "This year, the task was to shoot small balls into a centerpiece that spun and at the very end of the match you had to lift a larger yoga ball on top of it."

Because the robot was only 18 inches tall, Wallace said students had to figure out how to extend the robot. But despite the challenge, the team did well.

"We had the second-highest score of any team" in that goal," he said.

Kucharski's favorite part involved going to the competitions.

"I like . . . seeing what everyone else has," he explained. "Just seeing how they've overcome certain obstacles helps us to grow as a team and helps us to improve our design overall."

Ziehm's favorite part? Being with friends, he said.

"The group, Robotics kids, we're all really good friends so not only do you get to have a lot of fun but it's a team-building, cooperation, leadership somewhat criteria that we've helped develop throughout the season."

Student Success

Wallace said many of his former students continued their education in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields.

Jessica Edwards, a 2016 graduate, went to Missouri University of Science and Technology. Ziehm begins at MS&T in the fall.

Kucharski, who will be a senior in the fall, is currently considering both Texas A&M and the University of Illinois. He plans to major in mechanical engineering.

Emily Kucharski said she's still uncertain about her future plans, but said that the robotics experience generated interest in technology fields.

"I'm thinking about the military and drones," she said. "I thought this might give me a jumpstart on learning about it."

Other students, including Ziehm's older sister, Grace, have pursued STEM fields at other universities, including SIU, SEMO, the University of Notre Dame, Purdue University and Georgia Tech.

According to the FIRST website, these scholarships are only accessible to those who take part in the competition, and therefore give team members an advantage to financial opportunities not available elsewhere. Currently, Ziehm is waiting to hear about his application for a FIRST scholarship.

The Ziehm family's appreciation for robotics recently extended to their youngest child, Chloe, 13, who just finished her seventh-grade year at Adams School in Creal Springs.

"I've always loved to build things, Legos and anything," she said.

Having watched both Grace and Will excel in the Robotics Club, Chloe decided to pursue it herself, and went through the process of beginning a junior-high team.

"It was hard because I first had to get permission from the principal to see if I could start it and then I had to ask my middle-school teachers and they all said no to sponsoring," Chloe explained. "I had to go to the Extension Center" and ask Mr. (Heath) Blumenstock (an Extension School teacher)."

Blumenstock said that while he didn't know much about building robots, he was eager to help the students learn.

"I learned kind of as the kids have pushed me along, but so far I think we've met twice a week," he said, adding that over the school year the club successfully built a number of robots. "It's just kind have been a fun experience."

Blumenstock credited Chloe for much of the club's progress, saying that she "took the lead" among the nine students involved at Adams School. The team included members from the sixth, seventh and eighth grades.

Future plans

Wallace said he has two goals for the Robotics Club: awareness and fundraising.

"We want to create awareness," he said. "People graduate and say, 'I didn't even know [we had a club], and I would have joined.'"

This summer, students will continue their robotics outreach through the Summer Robotics Club at Marion Carnegie Library. Ziehm and Kucharski, who both led the camp in the past, said the weeklong camp allows middle-school children in Southern Illinois to use Lego Technic kits to build robots. In doing so, the Robotics Club hopes to build interest for a new generation of students.

Ziehm said the camp is a great outreach tool.

"It has two main purposes: outreach to the community and get our name out there and also it helps bring people into our teams personally. We have a few people that went to the camp and they liked it and so they joined at the high school level."

The Robotics Club receives a budget of $7,000 to be divided over the three teams. Most of this money goes toward the building of the robots, but there are other things that must be considered, such as travel, registration fees, and lodging.

However, Wallace said his club has been lucky with donations so far. Both Aisin Manufacturing and General Dynamics donated money for the teams, and students also participated in various fundraisers at area restaurants, including Applebee's and McAlister's Deli.

Grants also benefited in the club's progress, allowing the school to purchase both a computer numerical control machine that Kucharski said "will allow us to build certain parts we want for our robot," and a 3D printer.

Nick and Emily hope this happens this fall at MHS.

Nick said that even though MHS isn't in Silicon Valley, the school has talent, and he's eager for the school to gain more recognition.

"We don't have the resources to build better robots," he said. "I want to see our name get out there."

Emily agreed.

"I want to see one of our teams go to World without a wild card," she said. "I want us to score high enough to make it to World."

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