"You have no idea how much I hate this robot right now," mumbled team captain Nathan Roth, 18.
The robot had burned out four motors already, Roth said, and the team was down to borrowing and scavenging spare parts. As the deadline ticked nearer, a half-dozen team members squeezed their hands onto the 18-inch square robot, tightening screws, adjusting gears and installing borrowed motors.
"If we put this thing in the arena right now, it would look like it was having a stroke and keel over," noted team member Ethan Schaff, 18, who nicknamed the robot "Fail-bot."
All the last-minute repairs, borrowing and on-the-fly redesigns are a normal part of the annual For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology Robotics Tournament at MSU. One hundred fifty high school students and 330 middle school students from across the state compete in this year's tournament Friday and Saturday in the Shroyer Gym at MSU.
FIRST is a nonprofit organization that sponsors robotics competitions for teens. The competitions at MSU are the only FIRST tournaments held in Montana. The organization also holds regional and national tournaments across the country and around the world.
High school students competed Friday in the FIRST Tech Challenge. The teams had to build robots from a standard parts kit they received in September. The goal was to use the robot to put as many hockey pucks into a scoring bucket as possible.
Middle school students will compete Saturday in the FIRST LEGO League tournament. The teams in that competition use robots made from LEGO bricks to solve a two-part climate-themed challenge.
FIRST's tournaments -- some of which feature much larger robots weighing up to 120 pounds -- aim at teaching students gracious professionalism along with the technical skills, said Sidney's coach, David McDonald.
"It's a really good opportunity for my students to engage in science and engineering and applied math," McDonald said. "They've taken on a skill set that will last for life."
Sidney sent 15 students and two robots on the 7-hour bus ride to MSU. The students ranged from freshman to seniors and ranged in experience level from rookies to three-year veterans.
Roth, a senior, said he liked the challenge of programming the robot's 30-second automated routine because the program required so many changes as the robot's design evolved over the months.
"Putting this together by hand, you really learn a lot," said Roth, who wants to study computer information systems in college. "I learned that you can use a lot of different approaches to solve the same problem."
Brian Redman, the captain of the other Sidney team and a junior, said his team was having fewer problems with their robot than Roth's team, though they did break part of the robot's scooper arm during a practice round, requiring a quick repair before competition.
Being part of the FIRST tournament has helped him learn the difference between science theory and practice, Redman said.
"A lot of times I can do a thing on paper and prove that it should work, but then you put it on the robot and nothing works right," said Redman, who wants to become a nuclear engineer.
The lessons in practical problem solving came in handy for Roth's team Friday morning. The team finished its work on the robot as it was being rolled down the hallway to judging. There, MSU volunteers questioned the team about its design and inspirations.
The problematic robot passed judgment and even passed the technical inspection -- "Barely," Schaff pointed out -- but that left them no time for practice rounds, meaning the team would be putting a wholly untested design into competition.
But after all the morning travails, the team still said being in the tournament and the lessons learned were worth the long bus ride to Bozeman.
"We're more confident than we were," Roth said. "We're not going to win, but we'll do OK. And we'll have fun doing it."
At the end of the first round of competition Friday, Redman's team placed 12th, and Roth's placed 19th.
"Robots inspire students to think big," Jan. 11, 2008 -- http://www.montana.edu/cpa/news/nwview.php?article=5488
"Four Montana robot teams qualify for nationals," March 6, 2007 -- http://www.montana.edu/cpa/news/nwview.php?article=4627
"Hundreds of robot-loving students to compete at MSU this week," March 1, 2007 -- http://www.montana.edu/cpa/news/nwview.php?article=4590
"Spring turns into robot season for Montana students," March 8, 2006 -- http://www.montana.edu/cpa/news/nwview.php?article=3467