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Wessington Springs robotics team has high hopes for state

WESSINGTON SPRINGS -- These bots are ready for the big show. Today, a Wessington Springs team will put their robotics knowledge to the test on the state's largest stage. The Wessington Springs Robotics Team -- featuring 10 students in fourth thro...

Will Bruckner, left, James Kruse, center, and Sarah Poncelow, right, work with the Wessington Springs Robotics Teams robots Thursday night at Wessington Springs High School. (Caitlynn Peetz/Republic)
Will Bruckner, left, James Kruse, center, and Sarah Poncelow, right, work with the Wessington Springs Robotics Teams robots Thursday night at Wessington Springs High School. (Caitlynn Peetz/Republic)

WESSINGTON SPRINGS - These bots are ready for the big show.

Today, a Wessington Springs team will put their robotics knowledge to the test on the state's largest stage.

The Wessington Springs Robotics Team - featuring 10 students in fourth through eighth grade - is competing in its second state tournament at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, and after finishing mid-pack last year, the team hopes tweaks to its robots in recent weeks will propel it toward the top.

"We started using sensors in the past few weeks to improve our accuracy ... we realized we hit the end of what we were doing before, which was basically just point the robot in the right direction and let it go," co-head coach James Kruse said. "That's not good enough for us - we want to raise our accuracy."

The robotics team is a program, instituted by Kruse, which allows students to use robots, made of Legos, as a learning tool by teaching students how to build and program robots to navigate through an obstacle course. The team is coached by Kruse and Alex Dean, of Wessington Springs. The robotics program was created in Wessington Springs three years ago, but the team did not attend the state tournament in its first year.

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In 2014, Kruse received a $5,000 grant and used it to purchase eight robots and "get the program off the ground," he said. Each robot costs approximately $500, and the Wessington Springs team is one of the few from rural schools outside of the immediate Sioux Falls area, Kruse said.

But that doesn't put the team at a disadvantage.

Prior to the state and regional competitions, teams received an identical course to practice, and at the competitions, the team is given two and a half minutes to program their robots and complete the course. The second half of the challenge involves solving a community problem related to the competition's theme - animals, this year - and give a presentation to the judges.

The Wessington Springs' project focuses on solving habitat problems for bats and has met for two hours nearly every weekend since September to perfect its robots and its community project.

And, while the students involved are learning how to build and operate robots, some of the most important lessons they're learning far exceed the robot's obstacle course, Kruse said.

"The worth is that they're learning a lot of things - how to do teamwork, math, engineering, programming. Nothing works how you want it to so it really supports STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) learning," Kruse said. "Then they're doing presentations, and the competitions focus a lot on core values like good sportsmanship and treating one another with respect."

As the group of students on the team age and phase out of the program, Kruse said more come in, like with any extracurricular activity. But the group involved now is "really invested" in the robotics team and if that remains true, it's possible Wessington Springs could create a second elementary and junior high team as well as form its first high school team.

"Most of our team is pretty young, if we can keep that core group intact we'll probably get a little more motivated to do that. Then you have a guaranteed team and that's really exciting," Kruse said. "Right now we're just enjoying the fact they're a young team and we don't have to worry about that yet."

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