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St. Mary's robotics students headed to state

The transparent cube of wires, circuit boards and motors lurches forward, traveling a short distance before colliding with its target: a pole holding a bin of plastic balls.

Hands dancing on twin video game controllers, St. Mary's School 14-year-olds Gordon Dauterman and Brody Bramscher guide the cube — a robot named Bubbles — to its mark. A handful of other students cheer as the pole falls and the balls clatter out.

This is a driving test of sorts, a competition to see which members of St. Mary's "Trial 'N Terror" First Tech Challenge robotics team will be in the driver's seat at Sunday's state qualifying tournament at Oregon State University.

St. Mary's students will compete against 24 other teams in the tournament, guiding two-robot teams over a playing field and gathering as many plastic balls as they can and depositing them back in receptacles for points.

It's a group of students who have mostly stuck together since forming as a Lego Mindstorm robotics team, with a couple of new additions. And they're in agreement: graduating from Legos at First Lego League to FTC's larger, more complex creations has been quite fun.

"I like this more. It's a lot better," says 13-year-old eighth-grader Ethan McAnally. "You actually get to control the robot sometimes, which is really fun. Also you get to work with more power tools and things and learn how to use those."

Team robots are limited to a size of 18 inches — lengthwise, height-wise and depth-wise. Teams have been hard at work building their creations since September 2014. Students get a base package of parts and sensors and build from there.

"This is a lot more abstract. It's a lot more free-form," says team adviser and co-coach Kent Dauterman. "You can really use almost any type of parts that you want."

Fewer limits means more education. Students have learned to use drill presses, belt sanders and other power tools. They've also utilized a 3-D printer the team won in an essay competition.

"I had no idea how to use a lot of these power tools before," says 16-year-old sophomore Rowan Lovich. "We learned a lot of stuff about that."

The team has also done practice runs using the aptly named "Pesky Bot," essentially a lesser robot that's meant to interfere with Bubbles' tasks — the team's annoying little brother, maybe. Margaux Quady, a 14-year-old freshman, says the robot was originally meant to be a model robot on which the team could try out different ideas before applying the solutions to Bubbles, but that changed.

"We just used it to be an opponent for when we do mock games, to distract us," Quady says.

Quady said she would recommend the First Lego League and First Tech Challenge programs to anyone.

"You make great friends. You learn how to work well together with teammates. You sort of touch base on programming, which I think will be very important in the near future, for all of the new generation coming up," she says. "Having this little touch-base on engineering and building and programming — just sort of wetting your feet — is going to definitely either help kids decide that's what they want to do when they grow up, or just sort of give them a little edge."

Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ryanpfeil.

Gordon Dauterman works on a robot at St. Mary's School in preparation for a robotics tournament at Oregon State University Sunday. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch
The St. Mary's robotics team members hone their driving skills after school Wednesday. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch