Some high schoolers enjoy sports. Some enjoy creative pastimes like sketching, writing, or photography. Others are passionate about designing and building robots that can solve world problems.
The students of Eagle River High School’s (ERHS) robotics program fall into the latter category, and they love what they do.
Since the program’s start in 2011, ERHS’s robotics teams have won 11 tournaments, 20 team awards, and qualified for the Worlds Championships multiple times in Tech Challenge. In 2013, a team from ERHS won the Inspire Team Award, an award recognizing a team exemplifying the program’s values.
Matthew Prnka, who teaches AP chemistry, robotics, and computer integrated manufacturing, is the League Mentor for ERHS’s robotics teams.
He says, “We have been very blessed to have students who are committed to the program and are passionate about their roles on the team.”
The Tech Challenge provides students with the opportunity to learn about teamwork in a hands-on, engaging setting that is challenging and fun. Participants create a robot and programming to solve an obstacle that FIRST designates. The teams then test their robot’s capabilities and overall durability at local, state, regional and world tournaments.
FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is a national not-for-profit public charity founded in 1989 to inspire students to use science to solve real-world problems. FIRST’s Tech Challenge inspires students to use science to solve real-world problems while challenging them in technology, science, math, and engineering.
The ERHS teams have their eyes on the state championship in Anchorage in January. After tweaking their robots, the teams selected will advance to the Super West Regional in March and then the World Championships in April, hosted in Houston, Texas. Last year, over 30 countries participated in the Worlds Championship with over 16,000 spectators watching.
Tournaments are known for their intensity and exhausting contestants over the course of the two-day events.
“At the tournaments,” Prnka says, “they [the students] are really nervous but also very excited because every match is important. There is no downtime between matches because they are intensely repairing the robot if something got damaged, they are fine-tuning the sensor settings or code because maybe the lights and shadows in the arena can cause sensors to get different readings. Between matches, it’s a pit crew like NASCAR!”
Prnka is excited to contribute to this program because it empowers him to impact his students by teaching technical aspects of coding and design. More importantly, he can coach them how to collaborate on a team, work hard, and speak with confidence and authority. “Every moment is a learning moment,” he says.
Students on the robotics teams have various motivations for participating. Some simply have a passion for science and innovation, and some think ahead to the career, and academic opportunities could provide. Prnka believes that students generally participate for the same reasons others play sports; they enjoy themselves.
Prnka says, “Just like a football player plays [football] because it’s fun and he likes it and enjoys its aspects, the kids on our teams are here because they want to be here.”
ERHS’s robotics teams are passionate, focused, and motivated to compete hard. With additional resources, the program hopes to purchase more equipment.
Prnka encourages people to donate to the ERHS robotics program because $1000 gained from donors can materialize into a $90,000 college scholarship for students.
The ERHS robotics program is hosting a booth at Eagle River’s Fall Festival on October 28, located at the Eagle River Lion’s Club. Participants will steer robots through a pumpkin patch to retrieve prizes. Echo News is proudly sponsoring this and many other nonprofit booths as a part of its ongoing mission to be a force for good in our community.
Prnka says the robotics teams are “excited for the Fall Festival” because of the outreach opportunity and to let others see what they are passionate about.
Jamin Goecker is a local writer who recently moved to Alaska. When he’s not writing about local events and personalities, he can be found hiking, running, skiing, or editing his manuscript for a novel. Email him at Jamin@echoak.com and follow him on Instagram at Jgoecker1 or Twitter at @jamin_goecker.