Vermillion High Schoolers Take Robotics Passion to World Championship

Mar 1, 2018

Roger Rolfes (far left) and Nate Bohnsack (second from left) practice driving their robot ahead of the state competition while Yang Xu (kneeling) watches. They're part of the 1008M team with the Vermillion Area Robotics Club.
Credit Jackie Hendry

For a group of Vermillion high schoolers, a winning robotics team takes passion, perseverance, and a really dedicated mom.

In January, the team ranked 8th in the world at a competition in Omaha. Last weekend, the students won the state robotics championship. During a team practice earlier this month, students set their sights on their next goal – a ticket to the world championship in Kentucky this spring.

These teenagers in the Rolfes family basement aren’t just socializing. They’re part of the robotics team and they’re practicing...stacking cones.

And it’s much more complicated than it sounds.

These students are members of the 1008M team--just one from the Vermillion Area Robotics Club, which gives kids from elementary through high school an opportunity to learn how to write computer code and robotics.

Susan Rolfes started the club about four years ago and is the advisor. Her kids Roger and Emily are on the team. Their basement has been transformed into a practice arena for teams to finesse their robots. She explains a bit about this year’s state competition. It’s sponsored by VEX Robotics, which supports STEM education and holds competitions around the world. Each season the organization sets a challenge. This year it involves a robot that moves and stacks plastic cones on the court.

Susan says, “So when they’re stacking they wanna be able to stack the tallest stack."

Roger, who’s a high school sophomore and the team captain, starts to disagree.

“You can go as high as you want," he says, "but at a certain point the time it takes to go all the way up to the top and down to the bottom makes it slower to do just high instead of just doing a couple low stacks.”

Other team members explain specifics of the competition. There are bonuses for stack placement, and more if the robot parks just right when the round is up. It’s all about strategizing for speed and efficiency--not to mention actually building and programming the robot itself. Today, the team is trouble shooting a new method to stack the cones. Yang Xu is a sophomore and one of the builders.

He explains, “Our current transitional system here is called the rack and pinion. It basically moves one direction and it transfers the cone form the ground to our stack. And this new transitional system is more like an arch.”

The new attachment they’ve constructed gives them just a little bit of extra height for stacking--which can translate to a major advantage during the competition.

Roger Rolfes has done a little bit of everything for the team, but designing is his favorite.

“I like it more than building," he says. "I mean, I’m ok at building, but I really like designing and executing a design well and watching it work after having thought about it in my brain and making it come to life and work well.”

When things don’t work as planned, these students enjoy the challenge. Roger’s older sister Emily Rolfes is a senior, and says troubleshooting is her favorite part of the process.

“There’s just so many things it could be," she says. "And, like, when you finally figure it out and you fix it and it works right, it’s such an amazing feeling.”

That creative thinking is part of why their mom started the club after she realized there were no computer coding classes in their school. Susan Rolfes has a computer science and engineering degree, and says robotics helps kids develop analytical skills that aren’t always part of regular curriculum.

“In math class, two plus two is always four. Where when you’re designing something you design it on your own, you go back and re-engine it and constantly re-engine it and test," she says. "And it teaches kids, teaches constantly making or improving something, a process. And I love that.”

And that love has spread well-beyond just the Rolfes family.

“Last year I coached eight teams out of my basement," Susan Rolfes says. "It was a little crazy.”

To recruit new members, the students get the word out through programs at the local library and demonstrations for other organizations like the Girl and Boy Scouts. But to keep the robotics teams going, fundraising is essential. And because the club is not a part of the school district or regular class time, the teams are responsible for equipment and other expenses. Susan Rolfes applies for and has received various grants, and parents cover travel expenses to matches. The rest is up to sponsors and donations.

Stian Olson is a senior and works on robot maintenance for the team. He calls the team’s fundraising technique non-traditional. He says they go around to local businesses, "walk right in the door with robots in hand and ask if they wanna see a demonstration and sponsor us. So we get weird looks, we get people really excited about it, and sometimes we bring home money.”

It’s not so different in the professional world. Susan Rolfes says engineers and designers are always looking for investors, so it’s good experience for the students to learn to sell their program.

And since there aren’t coding classes in the Vermillion school yet, the students learn that on their own time too. Sophomore Will Hackemer learned his beginning coding from teammate Roger Rolfes. Since then, he’s taken a programming class through the University of South Dakota, and hopes to take an intro to computer science class through Dakota State University next year. But outside of those classes, Will says there’s plenty of support online from other students who participate in VEX competitions.

"Google is your best friend at that point," Will says. "You can just Google a problem, there’s a whole VEX forum where people will ask, hey I can’t do this, then you have an example...Besides what Roger taught me and those classes, most of the kids in VEX are definitely self-taught.”

And it’s complex material. A piece of programming that automates a robot for just 15 seconds can mean more than four hundred lines of code. Susan Rolfes says good code includes comments--or pseudo-code--so that other programmers or team members can quickly see what each section is meant to accomplish. Will admits he struggles with that extra step.

“I can read my code fine!" he jokes. "That’s definitely another difficulty and it’s definitely made me a more organized person just in general with schoolwork and stuff, y’know?”

While Will keeps working on his coding skills, Roger Rolfes and fellow sophomore Nate Bohnsack practice driving. One moves the robot around the arena while the other controls the stacking arm. Roger’s tongue sticks out as he concentrates.

Susan Rolfes says she’s found Roger sleeping downstairs after spending the night working on a problem. Other middle school students have spent twelve hours practicing and fine-tuning their robots on some occassions. While Rolfes hopes to get coding and robotics into the school district eventually, she says this club fills a void in the community and offers a chance to get even young children exposed to the engineering field.

"Because at the time they’re in high school a lot of times they’re into other things," she says. "They’re into sports, they’re into dating, and they’re into just hanging out, so I think getting kids involved early is really important because then we’re gonna see more kids doing it as they get to the high school age.”

And she says keeping students’ interest is important so they can lead the changing world in technology, science, and math.

But for now she’s thrilled to see students who’ve worked hard and succeeded over the last few seasons of competitions.

“It’s amazing," she says. "Because I wanna see them have a world impact and feel what it’s like. I want them to go to worlds and experience that and see what other kids their age, what other nerdy kids are doing their age, and seeing that it’s ok and it’s cool. And setting goals.”

What comes next for team 1008M? They earned the excellence award and the tournament championship at the Vex Robotics State Competition. Either one on its own would’ve qualified them for the world championship.

In all, five of the Vermillion Area Robotics Club teams earned a spot in that competition this spring. With a $975 fee per team, that means a lot more fundraising, and the club has set up a GoFundMe page

But the team’s next goal? World Champions.