‘Bring your geek out’: Manitoba’s first high school robotics team gears up for competition

By | February 11, 2019

It might not be a standard after-school activity for a group of teenagers, but a dozen students in Winnipeg spend their free time doing one thing: building a robot.

The students from Grades 9 through 12 at Garden City Collegiate will soon become the first team in Manitoba to compete in FIRST, an international robotics competition.

“Ms. Cope had this comment during the beginning of the season. She’s like, ‘bring your geek out’,” says Grade 10 student Louize Lacson, who is building the robot’s electrical unit, also known as “the brain of the whole robot.”

FIRST Robotics requires teams to construct their own robots with limited resources in a six-week timeframe, before competing against each other in a huge, arena-style event.

The robot has to complete a multitude of obstacles, from picking up and carrying items, to guiding itself through a fake sandstorm.

More than 3,700 teams from around the world take part.

“As a rookie I’m feeling pretty confident,” Lacson says. “We still have a few weeks left. But I think we’re making really good progress.”

The rookie team, called “Gophertronics” (named after the school’s rodent mascot) is headed to a regional competition in North Dakota March 14-16 to compete. If they qualify, they’ll head to the international competition.

Team members of “Gophertronics” test out their robot in the school’s gym. The robot has to complete a series of tasks, including navigating through obstacles and moving items. (Marina von Stackelberg/CBC)

Electrical teacher April Cope says the competition is the end goal, but the process of encouraging teenagers in science, technology and math is even more rewarding.

“I see students picking up tools and doing things they normally wouldn’t be doing,” she says.

“I have students that are very academically standing, who come and they’re like, ‘I don’t know how to use that wrench, or I’ve never used wire cutters,” she says.

“To teach someone to use something with their hands and to see their face light up when they do it, it’s very exciting.”

Students Louize Lacson, left, and Natalie Gratton work will head to the United States in March with their team. Teams have to build and program the robot from scratch. (Marina von Stackelberg/CBC)

Grade 12 student Nikolaus Reichert is the lead programmer for the robot, and is also responsible for driving it through competition using an Xbox controller.

He says a successful team requires all kinds of talent.

“We have artists on our team. We have engineers. We have metal workers, machinists, wood workers,” he says.

Even though he’ll be graduating this year, Reichert says he wants to continue to mentor the team next year.

“Hopefully we can grow this into a province-wide venture, and we can have many different teams across Winnipeg [and] across Manitoba that can be competing in this,” he says.

Students at Garden City Collegiate test out their robot in the school’s gym. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

The program also has practical implications for students like Natalie Gratton, who works on the team’s electrical and manufacturing side.

“I want to be a line woman when I grow up, so learning all the electrical stuff will be really important,” she says.

Gratton says while friends are surprised she’s devoting weekends, lunch breaks, and after school time to building a robot, she’s loving it.

“They’re like, ‘Oh my God, you’re such a nerd.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with being a nerd.”