Best bots: BV Robotics searches for adviser, funding

Keeley Meier, staff writer

Keeley Meier/BV Journal 

(L-R) Carter Thorsland, Parker Thorsland, Brayden Heronimus, Hayden Kramer and their robot, Phil, make up BVs first metals robotics team.

Carter Thorsland describes robotics as something he looks forward to, something to be excited about each day.

This seems to be the general consensus within the Brandon Valley Robotics Team.

Freshmen Carter Thorsland, Parker Thorsland, Hayden Kramer and eighth-grader Brayden Heronimus make up the Circuit Breakers—Brandon Valley’s first metals robotics team.

The fall of 2017 saw the beginning of robotics in the school district at Brandon Valley Intermediate School under the direction of Smart Lab teacher Matt Mueller.

The program started with plastics, but when the boys stepped into the high school as freshmen, they had to shift into the metals program.

The Thorsland brothers were on the original BV Robotics team, Heronimus joined one season later and this is Kramer’s first year on the team.

Last school year, BV Robotics had four teams—all in the plastics division with hopes of two of them, including the Circuit Breakers, progressing on to metals. However, due to COVID and a lack of work and practice space, the Circuit Breakers is the last BV team standing.

Lori Huml, Carter and Parker’s mom, believes BV Robotics can really take off if they can find an adviser to take it on.

“The program could be huge, we think, at all levels, but where we struggle is actually having someone lead the program that’s connected to the schools,” Huml said.

The team is actively searching for an adviser who can supervise the team, provide support if needed and familiarize themselves with the rules of the current season and competitions.

Despite not having an adviser, the team has succeeded and operates independently. Their parents take turns supervising during practices but don’t offer much help.

“We’re of no use to them,” said Brayden’s mom, Andrea Heronimus, laughing.

This past year, the team has been traveling to Harrisburg twice a week to build their robot and practice. Harrisburg boasts a substantial robotics program and has allowed the Circuit Breakers to use their space and equipment. However, in order to keep the program going, it has to make its way back to Brandon.

The team is currently working with Brandon Valley High School principal Mark Schlekeway to find a space within the high school.

“At the high school, there’s the industrial tech workshop—we discussed with Mr. Schlekeway about using the loft storage space to put the field,” Carter said. “Then, we can store all of our parts and robot—our work station—down in the full workshop so we could have access to cutting tools and what we need to piece the robot together.”

The field is a 12-by-12-foot platform where the necessary props or game pieces are set up that the teams then use to compete with.

The team does not currently own a playing field, which comes with a $1,500 price tag, in addition to another $1,500 for the core robot kit—everything a team needs to start building a robot. Adding in game pieces that change every year, the constant replacement of supplies and tools and competition fees, Huml says it was recommended to them that they attempt to start a season with $10,000.

Because BV Robotics is not a school-sponsored activity, the team has gone out into the community to fundraise and apply for grants.

The team even forfeited their spot in the World Championships this year to save money.

“They chose to forfeit their invitation because it costs money to compete even virtually, and you have to have high-definition cameras and all this stuff set up so you can participate,” Huml said. “And, so, instead of investing in all that, we decided to keep our budget so we can get set to compete next year in hopes that it’ll be live again and we can save the money and actually travel.”

For the love of the bots

Despite facing challenges, the team is proud of the success they’ve had and find joy in simply being in the program and the teamwork they’ve cultivated.

“How well you do in a competition doesn’t really come down to how good your robot is,” Parker said. “Between teams, it’s a matter of communication, and between your own team, it’s a matter of everyone doing their parts and knowing the limits of your own robot.”

And for these four, teamwork has come naturally.

“We blend our jobs based on what our strengths are,” Heronimus said. “So, I’m a lot of research and designing. Hayden and Parker do most of the building, and Carter does programming and driving.”

“There’s something cool about putting together a metal box and watching it move around,” Parker joked.

Kramer says his favorite part of the program is the process of putting the robot together, and Heronimus enjoys seeing other teams’ designs and researching.

“I like watching YouTube videos of different bots,” Heronimus said. “Sometimes I’ll just sit at home and sketch out different ideas that I see on other bots and then bring it to my teammates.”

This investment in what they do, and do independently, is one of the reasons the team has been so successful.

“Honestly, everything that these boys have done with the robots has really been self-taught,” Andrea Heronimus said. “They’ve just figured it out.”

This includes coding. Carter is the only one who knows how to code, and he says it was a self-taught skill after gaining some insight on the skill from others.

And, how long does it take them to build a robot?

“For plastics, well, give it two hours,” Carter said.

“For this one, more like two months with planning and programming,” Heronimus added.

“With plastics, it’s just a matter of snapping together,” Parker chimed in. “For metals, you have to bolt everything together, cut stuff to certain shapes because all metal pieces aren’t the same. And, metal bots are actually a lot larger, so our building limits are bigger.”

Once the robot is constructed, Carter says, coding the robot takes another month with program changes and experimentation.

“I think the journey is better than the end, honestly,” Carter said.

“Nah, the end is way better,” said Parker.

Battling their bots

While their robots don’t battle in the traditional sense, they do compete for the highest scores which advances them in the competition.

Each match lasts two minutes, and while on the field, the team has 15 autonomous seconds—meaning navigation that has been pre-programmed; teams cannot use their controllers. For the remaining time, the team controls their robot.

“For each match, you’re with a team from another town against two other teams from other towns,” Heronimus explained.

This year’s game, the boys said, was “almost like three-dimensional tic tac toe” where their robots had to pick up balls and place them in towers around the field.

During their season, teams gather many tips and strategies for making their robot better. They even build a second robot in order to apply the new skills they learn.

“We put together a game plan with the first bot—the prototype—and look through designs, flaws, etc. and make little changes to the prototype,” Parker said. “When it comes to big changes, we don’t do it on [the prototype]. We build a second bot using what we’ve learned so far, and towards the end of the season, that’s when we finish the bot, and we actually use that one—it’s like a better version of everything we learned over the season.”

The competitions, Huml said, tend to be a big deal with an energetic announcer and cheering audience members.

“Carter and Parker are not into the sports stuff by the school, so robotics became a nice outlet to feel that competitive spirit,” Huml said.

The future of BV Robotics

The competitive spirit and working with teams from other schools allow the boys to meet other people and work with a variety of teams.

“One of the things that’s nice with any robotics program that has a wide variety of ages is it brings people together, of course, but you also get to talk to people younger than you,” Carter said. “Like, normally, if you’re just out in public, you’re not going to see a senior in high school talking to a fifth grader.”

And because the Thorsland twins, Heronimus and Kramer are getting older and more experienced in the world of robotics, their parents know they’d be great mentors for younger kids who want to try it out.

“These boys are at the point where, if they did [the program] at some of the younger levels, they know what they’re doing now, and they could be really good mentors,” Andrea Heronimus said. “That’s what they’ve done in the Harrisburg program—a lot of kids who’ve graduated to the metals program, you see them mentoring younger kids.”

Although there are currently no younger teams still working with plastics in BV Robotics, the STEM lab at the Intermediate School remains open to younger kids who want to join—as long as they find an adviser who wants to help them along the way.

As for the Circuit Breakers, they plan to move full-steam ahead next season in hopes that they can secure an adviser and a space in the high school.

“If we get to bring robotics to the high school, it’s not just going to help us in the sense that we get to continue the program and still enjoy it, it’s also going to help the school,” Carter said. “It can help teachers like the metal fabrication teachers—let’s say for a lesson they do cutting metals, so they can cut metal for us. It makes sense. It saves us time, and it helps teach them.”

Ultimately, the four boys hope to build the program while they’re in high school and hopefully watch it grow from there.

Huml says Schlekeway provided the boys some encouraging words.

“Mr. Schlekeway used the word ‘legacy’ too, which was really cool to hear him tell these guys that, ‘It’s not necessarily that it’s going to be this big thing by the time you graduate, but you’re starting something that will become a legacy, and to be a part of that original group of kiddos that brings this in and tries to get it going would be a really cool thing.’”


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