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Greenbush Middle River team shines in robotics competition in region and beyond

Members of the Greenbush-Middle River School robotics team prepare to demonstrate their invention at the Twin Cities Film Fest. Pictured are (from left) Landon Kvien, junior; Thor Anderson, sophomore; Kyle Stauffnecker, junior; Max Utter, junior; Mary Anderson, coach, and (back to camera) Russ Anderson, mentor. (Photo submitted by Team 5172 Media)

In the six years since its founding, the robotics team at Greenbush Middle River Public School in Greenbush, Minn., has been collecting awards—while gaining valuable career and life lessons—in competitions that test their skills at engineering, computer programming and other disciplines.

The team has won the annual Minnesota State High School League championship for three years straight.

Its winning ways are attributable to "the kids taking the initiative to learn about themselves and how to build a robot, doing a lot of research and connecting the others to see how we can grow and improve," said Mary Anderson, robotics coach and teacher at GMR.

Robotics teams are challenged to design and build a robot that can carry out a task, such as lifting and placing an object in a specific location.

The GMR robotics team members are carving a big reputation out of its commitment to do the best they can at robotics competitions near and far. They've competed in Minnesota, Missouri, Iowa, North Dakota and Michigan—at the latter, they ranked 15th after qualification matches in the World Championship in Detroit.

Their story has been captured in a documentary film, "Small Town ROBOT," by Joe Brandmeier, that recently was presented at the Twin Cities Film Festival.

The 27-minute documentary shows "the passion (the students) have for robotics and the growth that they see," said Anderson.

The impact of the robotics experience on her and other mentors is unusual, she said. The bonds and relationships that develop between students and coaches "are unlike any other."

"We created a new family. Each student has a biological family, and robotics is a family besides."

Winning from the start

The team, whose official name is "Team 5172 Gators," was organized in 2013.

Right out of the gate, the team impressed, nabbing the "Rookie All Star Award" and the "Highest Rookie Seed Award" in its first year at the Northern Lights Regional Competition and similar rookie honors at the First World Championship.

Those are only a couple of the many awards the team went on to win.

"We went from being a team that wanted to do the best we can for the team, to now, as a team, we want to do the best we can for others to spread FIRST Robotics," Anderson said. FIRST stands for "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology."

This year's team members total 25 girls and 12 boys in grades nine through 12. The higher number of girls may be due to the majority of girls in the school's junior and senior classes, Anderson said.

"We're hoping that (robotics will encourage) them to be more involved in the 'build' piece of it—girls tend to go toward those other non-mechanical roles, such as marketing and sponsorship," she said. "Some of them never think they can do or are interested in (a STEM career)."

Emily Wicklund, 20, was one of them.

Wicklund was hesitant about joining the robotics team, but quickly got excited, especially about photography and taking videos.

She also learned skills in "public speaking and marketing and teamwork—learning to work with others," she said. "It's not like any other sport, where you're just worried about yourself."

A student at Northland Community and Technical College in East Grand Forks, she's on a path to become a radiology technician.

Robert Hlucny, 18, a member of the GMR Class of '18, said robotics has influenced his course of study. He's a freshman at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

"I've always been interested in math, engineering and science," he said. "I was never too into sports, so this was like sports for me—it was the thing that fit me."

Along with the science and math knowledge he gained, "learning how to present the robot was another valuable skill I learned," he said.

Many benefits

A "key part" of the team's success is due to Doug Hlucny, Robert's father, a team mentor and a diesel mechanic who owns Hlucny Repair in rural Greenbush, Anderson said.

"He's kind of a self-taught engineer," she said. "He knows pneumatics, because of the mechanics; he knows electrical; and he loves seeing his son and other kids grow."

Hlucny teaches them to think outside the box, she said. "This robot we have, there are 10 different ways it could be done."

Team members come to Hlucny's shop after school and on weekends—sometimes into the late hours—to work on the robot game, which is rolled out by the national organization each January.

The School District receives some grant funding for robotics, but much the team's expenses are covered by donations from the community and fundraising activities.

The team has been successful "due to a lot of community support, both financially and by parents helping out, and a lot of businesses around here helping out," he said. "We've been lucky that way."