Wave of the Future

Published 7:01 am Saturday, February 6, 2021

With a new space, the surging Southland robotics program is seeing increasing popularity,  tournament success

It’s hard for Southland High School science teacher Paula Mortenson to contain her excitement when walking into the school’s robotics lab.

And it’s easy to tell why.

The dedicated space is right off from the new main entrance, part of Southland’s new addition revealed at the start of this year’s school year. It’s a clean environment with stations allowing teams to work on their individual robots.

“Isn’t it impressive?” Mortenson said, beaming as she looked around the space. “When we were designing it I knew it was going to be like this. It was more than I dreamed of.”

The space is a vast improvement from where they were before, tucked away in a basement portion of the school.

The move is a sign of just how far robotics has come in the school, even if the awards don’t give it away first.

Awards from tournaments past can be found all around the lab — stacked on shelves, running along windows. Their newest hardware was resting on a table after winning numerous accolades from the Window Tournament which included Middle School Excellence and  High School Excellence.

One of the high school teams, which is ranked third in the state, was one of two teams to claim titles — while another high school team was fourth for skills. A third was in the running for a title, but got knocked out by another Southland team.

All of this success is coming just seven years into the programming and during that time numbers have exploded.

“The first couple of years we had two, five kids,” Mortenson said. “This year that really exploded.”

Part of that explosion features an all girl team, funded by a grant money.

“They came to me and said ‘we want to break out on our own,’” Mortenson said.

That number now encompasses around 50 kids.

The new space allows for students to come in and work whenever they have the time. It’s made things more efficient.

“It’s really nice because last year when we didn’t have this,” said freshman Luka Young. “Go up to [Mortenson’s] room then it’s 10 minutes to come back with her to cut some metal. Here she can see us and it’s a 10 second walk. That’s it.”

To see this kind of excitement coming from the students has been inspiring for Mortenson and others. They show a passion for the robots and for the competition and they can be found at all hours working diligently.

It’s a puzzle in many ways that students thrive at trying to solve.

“How is this part going to work in tandem with the next part to make the best robot I can make?” said senior Max Schmitz, the son of elementary VEX advisor Paula Schmitz. “I’m always thinking of improvement to make it better when I need to.”

Jack Bruggeman and Cody Krull are freshmen and can often be found within the lab, toiling away. Both started when they were younger by putting together Lego constructions. The idea of building stayed with both of them.

“I liked to build anything,” Krull said. “Robots came along and I started building stuff that was actually functioning. Pretty much fell in love with it.”

The idea that robots aren’t simply made is a consistent theme for its creators. There’s not only  upkeep but the looking for improvements.

“There’s always stuff that can be improved,”  Bruggeman said. “There’s stuff you can add and figure out on your own. There’s always something new every day.”

To see these students putting in this kind of work has validated all of the good robotics has brought to the school and it’s on display most every day and most every tournament.

However, it’s not only an activity of the school. It’s another mode of teaching.

“This is hands on reference and it makes sense to [the students],” Mortenson said. “It’s the best of both worlds. Competition is often a high motivator for a lot of people.”

The district has seen the positive results and has been an advocate from the program for day one. As the gym and the rest of the addition was being planned, the district made sure that the robotics space was part of the building.

It was a vote of confidence that wasn’t missed by the students or Mortenson.

“They were all in,” Mortenson said about the district. “They see the value in this for the next generation and it’s not going away. Robotics is moving ahead and we’re making sure we are sending out a prepared student.”

[The district] believes in what we are doing,” Mortenson added. “We can’t express how grateful we are. We’re just shocked by the amount of support we have.”

However, part of what makes this successful is how robots are spread across all ages. But that in turn comes from a vested interest in older students working with younger students.

The high school students can often be found giving advice and helping tweak the robots of the younger students.

“We give middle school students a lot of help when they are having problems,” Krull said. “Couldn’t score? We give them a few options to help them score.”

There is one more small advantage for Southland Robotics and their new location: it is now more visible to the public. When the public comes to the school for basketball games or other events, they can now see what the students are doing.

“One of the things I’m excited about is people when they walk up and see the late practices,” Mortenson said. “We’re here at 7, 8 p.m. some nights. It’s fun for people to see that and look at what the kids are doing. Showcase to their peers. It’s not only really exciting for them, but for the entire program.”

However, when everything is all said and done, the success of robotics can come down to one thing — enjoyment.

“I think it’s a really fun thing to do after school,” Young said. “It’s really fun going places and competing in tournaments. Make some new friends.”