“Here’s the thing people need to know: It’s not battle bots.”

John Spanos, industrial tech instructor and coach of the Litchfield High School Robotics Club, laid it out flat. For those who need clarification, robotics doesn’t mean fighting.

Robotics is a chance to further skills in math and science for students interested in creation. The Litchfield robotics club is modeled after For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, or FIRST. For 25 years, FIRST Robotics has been an international nonprofit organization that encourages the incorporation of STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — into the lives of students.

Each year, Litchfield robotics participates in at least one competition. Last year, Spanos recounted, after finishing second at regionals in Duluth, the team advanced to St. Louis for the FIRST Worlds Robotics Competition, where Litchfield was one of roughly 6,500 teams from around the world that competed.

“It’s fast and it’s furious,” Spanos said.

This year, Litchfield robotics is working on constructing a robot to fit the theme of “Power Up,” with a nod to video games. The competition kicked off in January, with FIRST announcing the theme of the game. Teams must build robots and operate as alliances to defeat a boss character as if they are stuck in a 64-bit video game. With 27 students signed up on the team and seven mentors to help, Litchfield robotics is hard at work to make the deadline for the Lake Superior Regional competition in March.

“We have six weeks to design, build and test the robot,” Spanos said, “and we can’t touch it again until the competition.”

The Power Up game involves alliances operating robots that are responsible to move a “glorified milk crate” (power cubes) and maintain weight distribution on a scale against the competing team during the competition. Randomly selected teams will play three-on-three to win, as their robots load power cubes and move them to control switches and a scale. For the first 15 seconds, the robots are autonomous, moving to cross an auto line to get to the switch and the scale. For the remainder of the round, operators can remotely control their robots before ascending their robot from a platform to defeat the final boss.

It’s a trial and error process, with students participating in a number of different fields to get the project completed, including coding, design, construction and more.

Fourteen ninth-graders have joined the team, which Spanos sees as a great sign. Something else exciting that Spanos has noticed in the robotics club this year is that the number of female members has increased from previous years.

“We have eight or nine girls this year,” Spanos said. “It’s been a goal to get some of the younger gals in to promote math and science.”

Molly O'Connor is a reporter who earned her B.A. from Winona State University.

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