Albert Lea robotics team heading back to world competition

Published 1:27 pm Tuesday, March 7, 2023

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The Broken Zip Ties have once again advanced to the world competition in Dallas despite being eliminated in the quarterfinals of the state robotics competitions last weekend. They were able to advance after winning the Excellence Award.

“Our team actually was awarded the highest honor at the VEX robotics competition, called the Excellence Award,” said Burke Egner, technology integration teacher for the district, as well as robotics coach at both the middle and high school. “Excellence Award is an award that is given to the best overall robot for design, judging, engineering notebook, computer-aided designs, the strength of our programs.”

Egner said he always had faith in his students, especially considering the success of the program dating back to last year and all of the time his team has put into their builds.

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“When we were eliminated in the quarterfinals of the actual competition itself at the state tournament, we were really feeling a little down, like that was kind of the end of the season, end of the road,” he said. “They had already given out a great number of the awards, and we hadn’t received anything yet.”

He was also surprised the Broken Zip Ties had been eliminated so early, but admitted the robot had some difficulties.

Regardless of how the team fares, the future is bright, as only Easton Hillman and Paul “Kenny” Hillman will graduate.

“Any students who are into video games, robotics, engineering, coding, robotics is a great program,” Egner said of how the program would be starting again in May.

Anyone interested in learning more about robotics should visit the robotics page that can be found on the Albert Lea district’s webpage or call the district office.

The world championships will be April 25 to 28, with 800 teams from over 60 countries competing in the same competition.

“Our goal obviously is to win — it’s always our goal … to be the best that we can possibly be,” he said.

At the same time, he admitted advancing at the world competition could come down to luck of the draw.

“Our students have already been there so they know what to expect and just the gravity of having 800 teams and so many kids, and it can be a little overwhelming,” he said. “I think we’re better prepared to handle that kind of publicity being out on the world stage.”

Only student Molly Nelson is new to the team this year.

He also wanted his team to know how proud he was of them and the work they put in.

“They couldn’t do this if they weren’t spending time on the chat boards and talking to other teams and networking and building relationships, kind of those soft skills that really they’re learning throughout the year,” he said.

Paul Hilllman, who has been with the robotics team since eighth grade, said he was surprised the team advanced to the world competition.

But now that he’s going back to Dallas, he has a new goal.

“Get into elimination rounds,” he said, while adding winning an award would be “huge.”

He’d also like to finish in the top 16 of the school’s division, or at least be picked by another team in the division to move on.

He decided to join robotics because he wanted to do something he liked while staying active after school.

And while he was surprised to advance to worlds last year, he wasn’t as surprised this year.

“We did do well last year, there’s expectations to do good this year,” he said.

Easton Hillman also joined at the same time as his twin.

“I’m not the most athletic kid,” he said. “I tried sports in the past, nothing really tickled my fancy.”

Easton Hillman, who plans to study video game design or programming in college, said the experience has helped him solidify his understanding of how coding worked.

And like his brother, he was surprised to learn they advanced to the world competition.

His favorite part about doing robotics for five years was being able to turn something he enjoyed as a pastime and making it a sport.

He also thanked the team for providing the experience, and he was especially thankful for Egner.

“The fact that he was able to stick around and pretty much save the robotics program at the high school and have it be this massive success is nothing short of phenomenal,” he said.

Egner said summer robotics would be offered to high school students, and Nelson will head up an all-girls team next year. The all-girls team will bring the high school up to three teams including It Could Work, which was made up of first-year robotics students. His goal is to have four teams. There are four teams at the middle school level.

Last year, the Broken Zip Ties finished 30th in their 60-team division at the world competition.