Problem solving is nothing new for FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics students. The program offers endless opportunities to problem solve.

The program encourages high school students to use science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills to design, build and program a functioning robot, according to the website. The practice of gracious professionalism and cooperation is also encouraged and a large part of the program.

While there are changes to the program this year due to COVID-19, the objectives are the same, said Steven Bednarek, Barnum High School junior.

Bednarek is in his fifth year with the Barnum Bombatrons.

He said the students continue to meet every day after school for several hours. 

They build a robot from the base up, including designing and programming. Students also share team updates with the community through social media and set a budget through the finance team. They raise funds to purchase parts for the robot and raise awareness of the program.

Long time robotics coach and retired Industrial Technology teacher, Evan Lembke, said students are happy to be back in the program. 

“The kids are excited to build and do something normal,” Lembke said. “For many kids it is the only activity they are involved in.”

The competitions will be held virtually this year due to the pandemic.

The students will be judged on the robots performance and ability to complete tasks in a set time frame. The judges will also meet with the teams virtually and ask the same questions they would ask at the competition.

“I will miss the excitement of getting out of school for two days and be with other teams on the field,” Bednarek said.

In a normal year teams gather at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center (DECC) for a huge competition set to loud rock music. The anticipation radiates off students as teams wait their turn to compete.

“The atmosphere is exhilarating and very welcoming,” Bednarek said. “Everyone helps each other, in spite of being on different teams.” 

Bednarek said the team lost two key players to graduation. He stepped into their shoes as build captain and team captain this year.

“As much as it is a competition, it’s like one big team,” said Bednarek. “It’s very different from other competitions.”

Participation is down to 15 students this year from 25 last year. Lembke hopes more students will join the program as the in person school model continues.

“It’s fun, I’ve been doing this 21 years and this is the best activity I have done with the kids,” Lembke said.

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