Albert Lea robotics team to return to state

Published 7:05 pm Tuesday, December 20, 2022

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Team tied for state record for most awards from single team

Even with the dangerously cold temperatures and snow over the last week, the weather couldn’t stop the Broken Zip Ties.

The high school robotics team had what coach Burke Egner, Albert Lea school district technology integration teacher and coach of both the middle and high school robotics teams, described as an “amazing” weekend.

“We went to two tournaments,” he said. “On Friday the Albert Lea robotics teams, both the middle school and high school, attended the Minnesota State Mankato robotics tournament. The Broken Zip Ties came away with a trophy for tournament finalist for making it to the final match as well as … the design award at that tournament.”

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According to Egner, the Broken Zip Ties also earned the state record for most points scored in a single match from that event.

And on Saturday, the varsity team attended a tournament in Windom, where they placed tournament champion, earned an excellence award for most competitive and well-designed robot and the award for excellence in programming and driver’s skill.

“All five of those trophies … qualified for the state robotics tournament,” he said. “So in one weekend we got five invitations to the state robotics tournament.”

These were the third and fourth tournaments the team participated in this year, following one at the Mall of America and Southland Public Schools.
Egner noted the registration deadlines were before the events, and said had he known the team qualified for state at the Mankato tournament they wouldn’t have participated in Windom.

“We normally wouldn’t schedule two tournaments back-to-back like that, but just the way that the schedule worked for this year — that’s when those two tournaments were — the Broken Zip Ties were at that point chasing a state invitation and so we’re trying to make sure we have every opportunity to get a state invitation,” he said.

This year’s game was “Spin Up,” where the point of the game was to launch frisbee-like discs into an elevated goal, something he described as similar to disc golf. It was a two-minute game, with the first 15 seconds being autonomous, driverless control. Once that portion was over, drivers tried to collect 60 discs and place them in a high goal for points. Discs launched into the goal earn five points, and discs that land on the floor underneath the goal earn one point for the opposing team. During the last 10 seconds of the match teams can launch pieces connected to their robot in order to cover as much ground as possible. Each field tile earns three points.

“I honestly had faith they were going to qualify for the tournament,” he said. “What does surprise me is the ingenuity that they continue to come up with and the ideas they come away with.”

Senior Paul “Kenny” Hillman is in his second year in the program, though he previously did VEX robotics.

“I wasn’t the most athletic type person at the time in eighth grade, didn’t find much interest in sports,” he said.

Hillman, who did some building as well as scouting other teams, said the whole experience has taught him patience and that organization was key.
Construction on this year’s robot started at the end of last year’s world competition after the game was announced.

“The drive home, they’re already designing out and sketching ideas for the robot,” he said.

His favorite part of the experience is working with other people he enjoyed, and he has learned to think on his feet.

Eighth-grader Molly Nelson, who does team management, previously participated in robotics at the middle school.

“I wanted to join something new,” she said about her decision to join in middle school.

She’s also considering a career in a STEM field, and said the program had been what she expected.

“Tournaments are the same format,” she said.

So far, the experience has taught her how to work with people, and she plans to stay on the team next year.

The team will now be competing at the tournament March 2 and 3 at the St. Cloud River’s Edge Convention Center. But Egner’s biggest goal for the club was to help students find passions in and develop skills for STEM-related fields, whether robotics, engineering, aeronautics or something else.
And after last year’s success, where the team qualified for a world competition in Dallas, Egner said the club had almost doubled in size and now had 13 students.

“I do think that having success in the program does help to bring other students in to want to take part and be a part of something that’s electric, if you will,” he said.

Previous to the weekend, the team had earned the judge’s award for excellence in interview and design at an event in November at Southland.

“With those six accolades the Broken Zip Ties team is now tied for the state record for this year for the most awards for a single team, tied with a team from Mankato West High School,” he said.

Egner would also like to see more girls in high school robotics (there are two currently).

“We would love to start an all-girl robotics team and have Molly, our veteran female student, lead an all-girl team,” he said. “I really need more girls … to try to get into and hopefully break down some of the stereotypes and create a welcoming place for an all-girl team.”

This is Egner’s second year coaching at the high school, though he’s been coaching at the middle school for five years.

“I’m very proud of the work and dedication that they put in to the robot,” Egner said. “To get a robot of this caliber and this quality is not something they can do just here in school.”