GREENBUSH, MINN. – In this far corner of northwest Minnesota, where prairie winds howl and highway signs note the distance to Canada, a community of 719 people has created a robotics powerhouse.
A team from a village with no stoplights and a high school enrollment of 135 regularly takes on the biggest schools in the state and the nation — and beats them.
It’s like “Hoosiers” with robots.
Greenbush Middle River High School won the 2016 state robotics title, finished second a year ago and soon will make its fourth trip in five years to the world championship tournament, where it has ranked as high as second.
It’s heady stuff, and the team’s success has the entire town buzzing as the students get ready for the world tourney in Detroit at the end of this month.
“For the size of our community, it’s amazing. Pretty much everyone is behind it,” said Bob Truscinski, the school bus driver who hauls the team to tournaments around the region.
“It’s been an absolute life-changer for so many people,” said Tom Jerome, the superintendent of schools. “I’m crazy about this program.”
What makes this small-town team so good? It’s the farm influence, many say.
“They are tinkerers, and they come at problems from a different direction,” said Amy Doherty, who oversees robotics for the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL). “There is a definite advantage to having kids who have grown up as tinkerers.”
Take the Hlucny family, which has had four boys on the Greenbush Middle River team. Their father, Doug, runs a diesel repair shop outside town, and his sons have been hanging around the place since they could walk.
“We’re really used to being around that environment and working on machinery and whatnot,” said Robert Hlucny, a senior on this year’s robotics team. “All the engineering that goes into building a robot comes really naturally.”
In robotics, teams design, build and program a machine to perform certain defined tasks that comprise the competitive game for the spring tournament season. The direction this year was to build a robot that can pick up cubes, set them on scales and shoot them through small windows, scoring points as it completes each task. Bonus points are awarded if the robot can attach itself to a scaffold and lift itself a foot off the ground under its own power.
“I feel like we have a pretty good team,” said Max Utter, a sophomore. “There’s always that pressure, but I feel we have a good chance.”
As night fell in early February and temperatures dropped into the minus double-digits, about a dozen members of the Greenbush Middle River team headed for Doug Hlucny’s shop, down a lonely gravel road amid farm fields about 6 miles outside town. After five weeks of long nights working on their robot at the shop, they had only a week left to get ready for the season’s first competition.
In a bit of showmanship, the team designed its machine to lift not only itself, but two other robots as well, one on each side. The students named their creation “Fezzik,” after Andre the Giant’s character in “The Princess Bride,” who hauls himself and others up a cliff.
On this night, the team tries to get Fezzik dialed in to pick up cubes, raise them high and drop them off.
Fezzik is made up of a custom winch, 11 motors, six solenoids, more than 60 bearings and about 100 feet of wire. It takes two people using joysticks to operate the robot. One drives while the other works the lift mechanisms.
The drivers for the night’s trial runs are Robert Hlucny and his brother Ryan, a freshman. As they work the joysticks, teammates gather around, analyzing the moves, calling out suggestions, adjusting mechanisms and cracking jokes. Later, parents deliver boxes of pizza and the kids chow down standing up among the tractors and parts bins.
“I’ve never been in any other sports,” said Emily McLean, a senior. “Being a part of this team has really given me confidence.”
Companies on board
Greenbush Middle River isn’t the only small school punching above its weight in robotics. Many of Minnesota’s top teams are from rural areas.
Nearby Warroad (population 1,781) won the state title last year. Badger (population 375), just up the highway from Greenbush, has competed in the world championship. Frazee-Vergas, with a combined population of 1,681, is going to the worlds this year. So is Eden Valley-Watkins, combined population 2,004.
These towns aren’t on the radar of many Minnesotans, but corporate Minnesota is well aware of them. Many of the state’s best-known companies — Medtronic, 3M, Polaris and Boston Scientific — offer significant support to First Robotics, the nonprofit that oversees a monthslong schedule of tournaments leading up to the world championship. (The MSHSL invites the top 32 teams from the First Robotics competition to its state tournament.)
The companies view the sport as a way to introduce the next generation of scientists, programmers and engineers to careers in technology.
“It prepares the students and employees of tomorrow with real, practical skills that are relevant,” said Paul Marvin, CEO of the Marvin Cos., a major window and door manufacturer based in Warroad.
The Marvin Cos. recently sponsored a new First regional competition geared to teams in western Minnesota and eastern North Dakota, and Paul Marvin’s three sons all compete. The youngest students build Lego robots — “the gateway drug,” Marvin said with a laugh — and Warroad’s Lego team recently qualified for the world championship.
“They make presentations. They do marketing. They do programming. They’re working together,” he said. “It’s a microcosm of the business world.”
‘It’s real emotional’
Corporate support isn’t enough to field a team, which can cost anywhere from $35,000 to $50,000 a year. The robot alone costs $4,000 to build, and the regional tournaments charge entry fees of $4,000 to $5,000. There’s also travel, lodging and meals for the team and advisers.
The Greenbush team gets about $12,000 from the school district and a $5,000 sponsorship from the engineering department at the University of Minnesota. The rest the members must raise themselves, selling gift bags, greeting cards and raffle tickets. They also make presentations to local businesses and civic groups and work concessions at sporting events.
The community chips in, too. Central Boiler helps with machining parts. The American Legion post has raised thousands of dollars.
“We have people driving around in pickup trucks — and not the high-end ones — who are dropping off checks,” said Jerome, the superintendent.
In a community where the only grocery store may soon be closing, the team’s success means more than it might in a bustling Twin Cities suburb.
“I see all these kids doing something that in a rural area you wouldn’t see normally,” said Donnie Brekke, a local machine shop owner who turned part of his pole barn into a practice arena.
“It’s real emotional,” he said, his voice catching as his eyes filled with tears.
A spirit of ‘coopertition’
The heart of the Greenbush Middle River team is a local couple, Mary and Russ Anderson, who founded it in 2014 and have been advisers ever since. Mary Anderson grew up in nearby Badger and now teaches science at Greenbush Middle River in the same classroom where her mother taught. Russ Anderson owns a feed ingredient company.
The Andersons run an inclusive operation. Anyone who wants to join is welcome. Of the 37 students on the team, a majority are girls. That’s an important message in scientific fields that long have been hostile to women.
Robotics competition emphasizes good sportsmanship. Teams pitch in to fix problems with each other’s robots, and teenagers toss around phrases like “coopertition” and “gracious professionalism.”
Over the years, Greenbush has bonded with the team from Edina High School; they visited each other’s homes last summer, with Edina kids showing off the sights of the cities and Greenbush kids offering ATV rides Up North.
Greenbush Middle River qualified for the world championship by winning a regional tournament in Grand Forks, N.D., in early March. Late last month, they competed in another big regional at Williams Arena on the U campus.
Along with their engineering skills, teams showed off their creativity by donning wild costumes: lab coats, centurion helmets, silver spacesuits, pink wigs. Team names included the Tigerbots, the Bionic Polars and the KnightKrawlers.
Greenbush Middle River cruised through the preliminary rounds of the two-day event before being eliminated in the semifinals. But their pals from Edina qualified for the world championship. And nobody was more thrilled, Mary Anderson said, than her team, some of whom laughed, hollered or shed tears of joy.
“When you see kids cheering for other kids, that’s amazing,” Anderson said.
Doug Hlucny has seen that spirit shine forth many times, including in the lives of his sons.
“The robot,” he said, “is a campfire to get the kids around to build leaders.”