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Wilsonville Robotics engineers winning formula

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Students from Wilsonville, West Linn, other parts of Oregon work together in massive robotics operation


While people throughout Wilsonville spent the week waiting in anticipation of the high school football team’s much talked about semifinal matchup against Grants Pass, one of the area’s lesser known teams — but arguably its most successful — continued working on its own craft.SPOKESMAN PHOTO: ANDREW KILSTROM - Austin Hohenshelt (left) and Trevor Murphy work on some electrical components during practice.

The Wilsonville Robotics Club — composed of high school students from Wilsonville, West Linn and even cities like Sherwood and Newberg — has been hard at work since the beginning of school in preparation for its upcoming season. The team of 55 students has met an average of two to three times a week since school started, working toward competing in a couple different scrimmages as well as an upcoming “friendly” competition in Portland Dec. 12.

After winter break, however, the team will really begin to gear up for one of the most competitive and impressive gauntlet of tournaments high school has to offer in any capacity. FIRST Robotics Competition — the standard high school robotics league which stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology” — combines engineering, business and sport among a plethora of other things, involving some of the brightest teenagers the world has to offer today.

“It’s the varsity sport of the mind is what they call it,” says West Linn junior Beth Hoots. “People describe it as being a part of a startup tech company. Everything every year is new and you have to start from scratch.”SPOKESMAN PHOTO: ANDREW KILSTROM - Matthew Macovsky works on some coding to operate last years The King Maker robot.

Sometime in January FIRST Robotics will release a video giving every team in the world approximately six weeks to prepare before qualifying competitions begin. Wilsonville’s team starts from ground zero, raising all their own funds for parts and equipment before starting building. The team is divided into sub-groups in charge of various aspects, all key to building a winning robot and then competing at the highest level when the time comes.

“We have mechanical, software and electrical teams that all help on building the robot,” says Wilsonville student Adrian Shotola-Hardt. “Then there’s a strategy team, which comes up with our game strategy and helps us at competitions. Then we have our marketing team, which is also very important to help us get corporate sponsorships, and our image ad team which helps us present ourselves to the public.”

The strategy team starts by picking apart the video released by FIRST Robotics describing the year’s game and how points will be scored during competition. Last year’s robot was tasked with lifting, moving and stacking mulitiple crates on one another. In a different year teams were asked to construct robots that could shoot Frisbees into targets as well as climb standstill pyramids for bonus points.

The strategy team essentially decides the design of a robot best able to score points once competition time finally rolls around.

“I’m the strategic design lead, which basically means my job is to take the video, break it down and figure out the best way to play the game,” says Wilsonville senior Tristan Biggler. “You can build a robot to play the game any way you want to, but our team is dedicated to getting your best bang for your buck when it comes to the strategy.”

The software team then begins programming and coding, creating the language that will allow the team to command the robot to move as the team wants it to. Students get some help from industry professionals who act as mentors, but they’re essentially doing everything themselves.

“(FIRST Robotics Competition) gives us a few options of different coding languages we can use and we use “C++,” Shotola-Hardt says. “We have mentors that do engineering and coding for their job and then they come here and teach us how to do it, which is really neat.”

The electrical team is tasked with much of the hardware that goes into the robot as well as getting the programming the software team does to work when applied the physical robot.

The marketing team, meanwhile, is making sure the team has the necessary funding, as well as working on community outreach with other teams throughout the area.

“We do a lot of community outreach and we’re working on getting our business plan together,” Hoots says. “We’re building a robot but we’re also building really good business skills. … In these next few weeks we’re going to be going to Beaverton to present to one of our sponsors there.”

The club raises approximately $65,000 every year to cover all the costs that go into building the robot as well as traveling to the different competitions they compete in all over the country. Last year Wilsonville placed well in district and regional competitions, both locally and in parts of Washington, qualifying them for the international competition in St. Louis, Missouri. There, the team finished inside the top 64 of the best 600 high school teams in the world.

Wilsonville Robotics Club hopes to do even better this year, including a strong performance at a district competition the team will host March 11-12. Thirty-six of the top teams in the Pacific Northwest will travel to Wilsonville High School to square off in whatever competition FIRST Robotics Competition unveils in the coming months.

More than 1,000 people will show up to compete and spectate, filling up over half the school. Teams will prepare in one gym (the pit) and compete in another (the arena).

Wilsonville will be placed in an alliance with two other teams, facing off against three other teams, all randomly selected right before the competition. It’s a wrinkle that makes things even more difficult, putting an emphasis on game strategy, and requiring teams to communicate and help one another, both in preparation and on the field once the game begins.

“It’s three-on-three, and then each time out that changes, which is the incentive to be in the pit helping everyone out,” says the team’s Administrative Mentor Stephanie Briggler. “They might be your opponent one time but they might be on your team the next. The kids have to learn to work with people they don’t know and deal with personalities.”

Teams earn overall points based on performances in specific games, with the best teams eventually advancing to regionals and then the international competition. Wilsonville has become one of the most well-respected robotics teams in the Northwest during the past few years, and hopes to continue the trend this year.

The team still has some time to relax, relatively speaking, before competition really heats up, and is spending the offseason teaching newer members the ins and outs of building a robot and gearing up for the meaningful games. And while Wilsonville hopes to top last year’s performance, the vast experience they’re getting ensures they’re winners no matter what.

“The program is really incredible,” Briggler says. “It requires them to learn so many life skills, from the business world, to engineering, to working in a professional setting and working with people they’ve never met. It’s pretty amazing and something that pays dividends going forward.”

Following the team’s hosted event at Wilsonville High School March 11-12 the team will hope to advance to the regional competition, which will be held in Portland this year at the Moda Center. Until then students are enjoying working with mentors as well as each other.

“It’s a lot of fun and you meet a lot of great people along the way,” Hoots said.

Contact Andrew Kilstrom at 503-636-1281 ext. 112 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..