Robotic automatic: Southland robotics program sending 5 teams to worlds

Published 6:30 pm Wednesday, March 13, 2024

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ADAMS — Senior Luka Young and Junior Micah Johnson are old hats when it comes to competing on the big stages of robotics, but they are only a small representation of the larger scope and success of a Southland program that has many more members finding wins along with Young and Johnson.

The pair and a whole host of students will be representing a Southland robotics program that is sending a grand total of five teams to the VEX Robotics World Championship on April 25-May 1.

“Coming into the season, we expected to get to worlds,” said Young, who along with Johnson is a member of Southbots, which also includes Kailey Nelsen, Ben Nielsen and Cameron Bryan. “We knew we were going to make worlds.”

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That’s not bravado, but rather its confidence built by a program that has a rich history in being one of the most successful robotics programs in the state.

Over recent years, they have made it a habit to send a number of teams not only to do well at state competition, but worlds as well. This year the Southbots will be joined by high school teams the Rebelbots, Roverbots, Borderbots and the lone middle school team of the Gearbots.

It’s been something that coaches Paula Mortenson and Nikki Phillips have both enjoyed seeing since this year’s first signature event in August at the Mall of America..

“They have just been working like crazy ever since then to make sure they are ready,” Mortenson said. “It’s just been a phenomenal season and it’s been a lot of fun to see the kids motivated and working. They just want to work all the time.”

This year’s success and in the years before have also been the result of a program that has its roots going back to when the program was mostly made up of younger participants.

Those participants, however, are now the older leaders of the team and while the program will lose some seniors that have been with the program from the beginning, the impression they have left will help ensure that Southland robotics continues finding success in the future.

“We’re finally getting that core group that’s getting to the top level,” Mortenson said. “The younger kids have just gained enormous skill sets from those older kids. They are so much further along than even the seniors were at that age.”

“We hear them using language and words that they pick up from the older kids,” Phillips added. “It’s just amazing. They know what CAD is, they know what iteration means, they know the design process.”

Teams qualifying for world competition can only do so at signature events such as the one held at the Mall of America and the Lambeau Field Signature Event held in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Qualifying for worlds at those types of events can clear the way for a more relaxed competition at state events.

“We didn’t qualify at state. We qualified at the Green Bay event so that’s kind of exciting because then we didn’t have to worry about state,” Young said. “We could just concentrate on winning and doing well.”

“In the past years it was super stressful,” added Johnson, who came to robotics because of an interest in programming. “Getting to worlds before state was a big weight lifted off your chest and made it so much easier to compete at state.”

However, for the Rebels robotics program, there’s more to just competing and finishing well. There are opportunities, participants say, that transcend the competition itself and to further prepare these students for the next steps in life.

“Every skill you use in robotics, you’re going to use in the workforce,” Johnson said. “Whether it’s something mechanics related or adjusting to getting along with peers and working with other people.”

It also puts the process of preparation on the shoulders of students and gives them an ownership of their path within the program that extends to possible careers beyond.

“What does the workforce need?” Phillips said. “There’s going to be jobs that aren’t even created yet and they are going to be ready for it.”

And lastly, it’s connecting students with their peers.

“It’s really a great way to talk to teams about next season,” Johnson said. “It’s a great way to make friends and make some connections for the future.”