'The Things' are on a roll in Anoka

  • Article by: JOHN FUNK , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 9, 2010 - 5:09 PM

A team of Anoka middle schoolers built a self-guided robot from a Lego kit, and now it may lead them to an international competition.

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After winning the state tournament, “The Things” and their robot, Bessie, have raised nearly $10,000 for a trip to Istanbul to compete in an international tournament. Front, left to right: Ryan Hedlund, Dalton Ebner, Tanner Hanson, Anessa DeMers, Matt Vrchota; back: Ben Vrchota, Sam Manning.

Photo: Amy Gee, Star Tribune

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A team of robot-building kids from Anoka already has conquered Minnesota.

Next target: the world, by way of Turkey.

"The Things," as they call themselves, are a group of middle-school students who compete in the First Lego League, designing, building and programming a fully autonomous robot using a Lego Mindstorms robotics kit. The robot then has 2 1/2 minutes to navigate a standardized tabletop obstacle course, retrieving hoops, avoiding obstructions and performing simulated search-and-rescue operations.

"The Things" took first place in this year's state tournament and are one of a handful of teams from the United States and Canada invited to compete in the Open European Championship in Istanbul later this year..

This is the farthest the Anoka-based team has ever gotten in its eight-year existence. "We've never even won a trophy before this tournament," said Steve Vrchota, "Things" coach and a mechanical engineer at a Great River Energy power plant. He has coached at least one First Lego League team each year since 2002.

"We'll be one of seven North American teams. Most of

them will be from Europe, and then there will be some Asian teams competing as well," Vrchota said.

The Anoka team has one more challenge to meet: raising the money necessary to make the trip.

"Between airfare and hotel and everything, it's about $2,000 a kid," Vrchota said. "So we're fundraising for the eight kids and the two coaches.

"We're over halfway," he said. "We just tipped over $10,000."

While the program is designed to encourage interest in robotics and technology, it can attract kids with other interests.

"I'm a more artsy type, really," said Anessa DeMers, also known as "Thing 42." "But I have a lot of fun building robots."

Her artistic background brings certain advantages to the team. "It's helped me deal with our presentation a lot," she said. "And it also gives me a different slant on some of the ideas on the table."

DeMers designed the robot's mechanical arm, which picks up hoops scattered about the course.

Another member, Josh Wolf, also known as "Thing Omega," got involved with the program in elementary school.

"I had an interest in electronics and mechanics," he said. "But I really had no idea what robotics were in third grade.

"It's been a great experience, learning how this can be applied to the real world," Wolf said. "Not specifically the robotics, but the mechanics and their applications."

In addition to the Lego robotics competition, "The Things" are working on a project to convert a minivan to run entirely on electric power.

"It's out in our garage. It's about half-completed," Vrchota said. "But we have a lot of the parts, and we have a bunch of research posters on it."

John Funk is a U of M student on assignment for the Star Tribune.

For more information on "The Things" and their fund-raising efforts, e-mail Steve Vrchota at svrchota@msn.com.

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