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BABBITT- “I am not sure who signed me up for this,” said Iron Mosquitos head coach Ryan Lindsay. The Northeast Range High School (NER) science teacher whose background was in genetics. …
BABBITT- “I am not sure who signed me up for this,” said Iron Mosquitos head coach Ryan Lindsay, the Northeast Range High School (NER) science teacher whose background was in genetics. Lindsay started the robotics team at Northeast Range back in 2015.
“I was given a box of parts,” he said. “It was a bit overwhelming. It didn’t even have an instruction book.”
The team has moved from learning the basics of robotics to now competing at the highest level, after earning a coveted spot at the FIRST Robotics World Championship in Texas this April.
So, in addition to learning robotics, Lindsay is now leading the effort to raise the funds needed to take the team of 20 students to the Lone Star state.
Lindsay has been learning robotics alongside his team members, who range from eighth graders to seniors.
He admits their team is limited somewhat by his own expertise. But the team is slowly adding mentors, including a computer programmer, Walter Harrier, who moved to Cook during the pandemic, and has been working with his team members along with a new team formed at North Woods School.
“The program is designed so kids can be mentored by professionals,” he said. “But up here, it tends to be mostly led by teachers.” Teams in the Twin Cities, he said, often are led by professional engineers.
“We really could use a retired mechanical engineer,” he said. “If anyone knows of one who might be interested!”
But like the mosquito, this team is “small, persistent, and highly effective,” which also happens to be the team’s motto.
Working with about 20 students from Babbitt, Tower, Ely, Embarrass, and Cook, the Iron Mosquitos won the highest award given at the regional competition in Duluth earlier this month, the First Impact Award. The team is definitely small, but mighty. Some teams at the competition, Lindsay said, had more than 80 students, more than the entire student high school body at NER.
“The award is not given out for what you have done this year,” said parent and volunteer coach Ryan Denzer-Johnson. “It is given for the impact that is being made in kids’ lives, the schools, the community, and the region by bringing awareness and opportunity for people to experience robotics.”
The team also had a good showing at the regional competition in Duluth, coming in with the fourth-place alliance team (teams work together during the competition). Sixty teams competed at the event.
“We had the highest point total of the tournament,” Lindsay said. “We do okay.” The team was grouped with a team from Wayzata and WICORI (a large, consolidated district) in the finals.
Last year the team won a design and engineering award at the Minnesota State Robotics Competition, where they were able to use the school’s new CNC (computer numerical control) machine to create custom metal parts.
This week the team was busy repairing their robot, which needed some work after the competition in Duluth. Lindsay said they are still seeing issues with sourcing parts, a problem that started during the pandemic. They were not able to get some of the commercial grade parts they needed for their robot this year and had to make due with lighter-weight options.” “We couldn’t get commercial grade slides this year,” he said, “and also all the motors we ordered were delayed and didn’t get here on time.”
The team meets after school four days a week, and then again on Saturday. The season starts in January and ends in March. Each year teams are challenged to build robots that can perform specific tasks during the competition, so each year the design process can start from scratch. Robots can be designed to be offensive or defensive on the playing field.
“They spend at least 30 hours a week on this,” Lindsay said. “But the last 10 days before the tournament, we often worked past 10 p.m.”
NER senior Owen Koivisto got hooked on robotics after seeing a team demonstration when he was still in elementary school at Tower-Soudan.
“It was a real eye-opener,” he said. “I hadn’t ever seen anything like that before.”
Koivisto has learned a lot over the years as a team member, but perhaps the most important lesson has been about the importance of teamwork. He said the team members treat each other like family, and he also had enjoyed getting to know the members of other robotics teams during competitions.
“I’m not a theater kid,” he said, “robotics is for me.”
As the lone senior on the team, he is in his second year as “drive captain,” charged with controlling the robot during the competition. He is also one of four co-captains of the team. Other co-captains are Greyson Reichensperger, Natalie Backe, and Hailey Lindquist.
“You really have to know the controls,” he said. “And you need to have good social skills to work with the other drive captains in your alliance.”
Depending on when the robot is finished, the drive captain may have no time to practice before the actual competition.
“My only drive practice was at the regional competition this year,” he said. “It’s a lot of pressure.”
Denzer-Johnson said the team’s success is a testament to Lindsay, and all he has invested in the lives of these students.
“Over the years he has done many midnight build sessions, given up summer days and weekends, and figured out how to lead a team full of teenagers. He and the local mentors he’s recruited have challenged kids to step outside their comfort zones and accomplish more than they ever thought possible,” Denzer-Johnson said.
Koivisto also credits the dedication shown by Lindsay.
“He is honestly the idea coach,” Koivisto said. “He pushes us, but he also knows how to have a good time. He puts in so much time. We are at school so late some nights.”
Koivisto has decided to study engineering in college and is planning on attending Itasca Community College next fall.
The team is now headed to their second regional competition in Peoria, Ill., March 17-18.
Most years, the team will compete in two Minnesota tournaments during the winter season, but this year they had to travel further from home to fit a second tournament into their schedule.
The team was also invited to an event in California this past fall, hosted by Apple, where they showcased their outreach work in the community. Team members also spent time over the past few years doing outreach at other area schools, doing workshops with the Boys and Girls Club at Nett Lake and Vermilion, and even offering robotic grocery delivery from inside the store to the parking lot at area Zup’s during the lockdown period of the pandemic.
Team members bring a variety of the skills to the group. While some are more interested in the technical aspects like 3D-printing and welding, others focus on software programming, electronics, as well as graphics and marketing.
“They all learn something technical,” Lindsay said. The younger team members have to learn basic skills like drilling a hole in metal, he said, older students learn to design pieces on the 3-D printer or use the CNC tool to cut aluminum into precise shapes.
Team members grow their skills and expertise year to year, and many have moved on to study science and technology in college or move on to technical jobs out of high school like welding or diesel mechanics.
“Through the Iron Mosquitos, so many kids have realized they have a gift and a passion for something that without robotics, they never would have known. Whether that passion be welding, wiring, engineering, programming, mechanics, CAD, grant writing, or countless other things. So many students first discovered that passion and gifting through being a part of the robotics team,” said Denzer-Johnson, who has two children on the team.
The Iron Mosquitos are working to raise money to pay for a bus, hotel rooms, and associated costs for the trip to the world championships in Texas, which Lindsay estimated will total between $30,000 and $40,000. Any local businesses or individuals who would be interested in supporting the team as they represent the Iron Range before the world, please check out our gofundme page at https://gofund.me/2178249d. The team would also like to thank their current sponsors Bois Forte Band, AISES, Pebble Spa, Ely Marathon, Apple, and the Gene Haas Foundation.
Team members include Noah Axelsson, Natalie Backe, Matthew Bock, Connor Doyle, Brandon Hancock, Amaya Johnson, Isaiah Johnson, Owen Koivisto, Tuuli Koivisto, Molly Lindsay, Hailey Lindquist, Leo McKrahl, Eva Morgan, Raiden Pratt, Greyson Reichensperger, Alora Hanson, Makana Bodas, Ian Sunsdahl, Simon Bartnick, Samantha Daugherty, and Rafael Marroquin.
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