Building a Better Robot

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:36 pm

Milwaukee-area businesses are generating interests in engineering and technology by providing money, moral support and workspace for high school students who are

competing by creating robots. FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is a multinational organization that aspires to get students interested in science, math, engineering and technology. The Manchester, N.H.-based nonprofit was launched in 1989 and operates the FIRST Robotics competition in which teams of high school students, sponsored and assisted by local companies and volunteers, design, assemble and test a robot capable of

performing a specified task in competition with other teams.

Teams must build robots under specified guidelines. This year’s competition, themed "Aim High," is like robotic basketball. The robots will be designed to perform some basic basketball functions.

The Wisconsin Regional competition will be held at the U.S. Cellular Arena March 23-25. Currently, 19 of the 32 registered teams in the regional are from Wisconsin. Five of the Wisconsin teams are new to the competition, including (Milwaukee) Messmer High School’s (MHS) robotics team.

"My first step was to get involved with a team that was started at Marquette University High School," said Dudley Palmer, a math teacher at MHS and an advisor to the MHS Robotics Team.

After showing three would-be MHS Robotics Team students a smaller-scale robotics competition, Palmer made the decision to get Messmer to participate in the FIRST competition.

"We picked up our kit, not really knowing anything," Palmer said. "From that point, it’s been, I think, the blind leading the blind."

The team had a rocky start, almost not getting its paperwork in to qualify for the competition. But when word got out about Messmer’s interest in FIRST, scores of people came to aid the team.

Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) students Lauren Halatek and Erik Zurkoski heard of Messmer’s endeavor and immediately volunteered to help.

Halatek founded the Milwaukee FIRST Support Organization (MFSO) at MSOE in 2002.

"(MFSO) is a club organization to promote FIRST robotics within the community," Halatek said. The club has about 20 active members and sends MSOE students to assist the Milwaukee-area teams, including Messmer, Thomas Moore, Bradley Tech and Rufus King high schools.

"Messmer needed mentors because a lot of the team members are young, so they haven’t been through the basic physics or engineering courses," Halatek said. "Basically we’re here to sort of broaden their knowledge."

Competing teams also offer friendly advice and aid each other. The team from Bradley Tech opened up its facilities for Messmer to use on Saturdays. Teams throughout the state exchanged excess monies they’ve received from businesses to aid each other in building an ideal robot.

During a luncheon, Thomas Bentley III, chief executive officer of Milwaukee-based Bentley World Packaging, heard C.G. Schmidt Construction Inc. vice-president Craig Coursin talk about the importance of business and community involvement in a program such as FIRST.

"The minute I sat there and listened to this, I got all intrigued," Bentley said. "It dawned on me I was sitting right there (and) I could give them space and moral support."

The lack of interest by students in engineering and science has created a workforce deficit in those fields, Bentley said.

"Getting kids interested, getting them intrigued with science, math and engineering is something I had to jump on to do," he said.

Bentley allocated a portion of his company’s workspace, the "flag room," to Messmer’s robotics team. The team was able to leave its project there without having to constantly pack up and move out. Bentley has also aided in shipping the robot and donated an undisclosed amount of money to the team.

"(Volunteering) won’t make you a nickel, but it is good for the morale of your people," Bentley said. "Business-wise it’s a ‘feel good’ thing. It’s a project that makes great sense."

About 15 kids participated in building the Messmer robot.

Messmer had the option of working jointly with another high school’s robotics team.

"But we decided it was important we have our own team" said Richard Anderson, another Messmer FIRST robotics team advisor.

Eric Pearine, a freshman at Messmer, plans to participate in the FIRST competition next year.

"I like the idea we’re building an actual robot that works," Pearine said. "The most difficult part is learning about the electronics and where they go, how they work."

Dominique Tooke, a Messmer senior who will be attending the University of Wisconsin in Madison this fall, and freshman Erik Rodriguez, said they are gaining from the experience.

Though the team has not agreed on a name for the robot, "Blackhawk" is being considered.

"You have a spirit of FIRST," Halatek said. "Once you’ve gone through it, you get that passion for FIRST."

"It’s a huge group development process," said Zuroski, a computer engineering major. "They’re working together and figuring out who specializes in electronics and building. I like working with a robot, that’s exciting in itself. It’s a lot of fun to see high schoolers and help them engineer this type of project."

Palmer and the Messmer students said they are unsure how their robot will perform, but they said it has been a great experience being able to submit a functional robot.

"Next year’s team will have the base-knowledge they need to succeed," Palmer said. "But this year’s team has had a lot of fun."

Messmer’s robot is up and running, a task many first year FIRST teams are unable to accomplish during the allotted time of six weeks.

"We couldn’t have done it without all the help from people," Palmer said.

Milwaukee-area FIRST Teams and Sponsors:

  • Quest Technologies/GE Healthcare sponsoring Oconomowoc High School.
  • Rockwell Automation/GE Healthcare/ Pentair Water/Fleck Controls/QuadTech a division of Quadgraphics sponsoring Hamilton High School.
  • Price Engineering sponsoring Arrowhead High School.
  • Midwest/NASA sponsoring Mukwonago High School.
  • Quad Tech, a Division of Quad Graphics, sponsoring Hartford Union High School.
  • GE Healthcare sponsoring Pewaukee High School.
  • GE Healthcare sponsoring Washington High School.
  • LakeView Technology Academy.
  • GE Healthcare Technologies/Rockwell Automation/Milwaukee Rotary/NASA/ Milwaukee School of Engineering and Lynde and Harry Bradley Technology and Trade School sponsoring Rufus King High School.
  • NASA/Quad Tech, a Division of Quad Graphics/Pentair Water/Marquette University/MSOE/American Acrylics USA LLC and Ultimate Protection Squad sponsoring Thomas More High School.
  • NASA/Rockwell Automation/Quad Tech, a Division of Quad Graphics/ Titan Inc./Marquette University sponsoring Marquette University High School.
  • NASA sponsoring Watertown High School.
  • Bentley World Packaging/Briggs & Stratton/CG Schmidt Construction, Inc./Marquette University/Milwaukee School of Engineering sponsoring Messmer High School.

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