Klamath Falls, Oregon — Not all Klamath teenagers gripping game controllers this week are addicted to Minecraft, Fornite or Grand Theft Auto. Eighteen teens from Ponderosa Middle School and Klamath Union High School are doing final tests of custom-designed robots that will compete in qualifying matches of the FIRST Tech Challenge robotics competition January 18 and 19.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was founded in 1989 by Segway inventor Dean Lawrence Kamen and late MIT professor emeritus Dr. Woodie Flowers to inspire interest and participation in science and technology. The organization’s annual Tech Challenge is robotics competition for students in grades 7-12 that culminates in a world championship tournament in April.

Ponderosa’s Elon Musketeers

For this year’s challenge, called Skystone, coach Mike Neuman is leading a team of 11 students at Ponderosa Middle School. The Elon Musketeers (in honor of SpaceX CEO and entrepreneur Elon Musk) have designed, built and programmed a robot named Athos that will compete with 14 other middle school teams at a qualifier tournament at Philomath Middle School on January 18. 

In each tournament match, Athos will pair up with another team’s robot on a 12’ x 12’ playing field. Working as an Alliance, the two will pick up 4”x 8”x 5” blocks, maneuver them under a bridge and around another Alliance’s robots, then stack them on a color-designated foundation.

Alliances will earn points for completing particular actions, both during a 30-second autonomous period of preprogrammed robot activity and a two-minute period of driver-controlled activity. They can score bonus points for especially challenging actions, such as placing a custom-designed capstone block onto a skyscraper or moving their foundation out of the building site without toppling a tower.

“It’s an exhausting day and incredibly stressful,” said Neuman of the tournament, “but it’s a huge adrenaline rush, and these kids are going to be hooked.” 

Part of the day’s work is the pre-match networking — what Neuman refers to as “politicking.” During this time, teams evaluate other teams’ strengths and determine good Alliance partnerships for elimination rounds, when teams can self-select Alliance partners.

“We’re hoping to be really good at gophering,” said 7th grader Brian Green. “Athos can move quickly so could be a great Alliance partner for a robot that stacks really well.”

Klamath Union’s The Pack

The robot designed by The Pack team from Klamath Union has similar strengths this year, according to KU junior Viviain Usher, who has been participating in robotics competitions since 7th grade at Ponderosa. Usher’s basement workshop is The Pack’s home base. Her parents, Carol and Ken Usher, are the team’s mentors. 

Usher points to adjustable “arms” that use a rubber band-like mechanism to grab and grip blocks widthwise or lengthwise and holonomic wheels that allow both front-to-back and side-to-side movement. She says her team robot will be efficient at moving blocks from the landing zone to the building zone and will be a good partner for a robot that can stack blocks well. 

Usher also is proud of The Pack’s scissor-lift component, designed to place a capstone atop a 5- or 6-story tower of blocks.

“I have high hopes,” she said of how The Pack will perform against 13 other high school teams at Philomath High School January 19. 

“We used to wonder if we’d score points in the autonomous period of competition,” said Usher. “This year we’re asking ourselves how we’ll score.” 

Junior Saira Blevins humbly calls herself “just the programmer” for The Pack but has been a big part of the team’s progress. Blevins is responsible for programming her team’s robot using the coding language JAVA. Self-taught, she also is fluent in Blocks and Binary coding.

Klamath Union’s Klamath Coyotes

Also competing January 19 will be the Klamath Coyotes. Teammates Daniel Piper and Seth Gebauer are eight-year robotics partners who began working together on FIRST’s LEGO League challenges in elementary school. With Mauricio Huntoon DeRoche, they have participated in five of FIRST’s First Tech challenges. Twice they have made it to the world championship in Houston.

Coach David DeRoche says the team is optimistic about doing well this year. He describes a well-rounded team, with Huntoon DeRoche excelling in designing, Piper in programming and Gebauer in organizing the engineering notebook and networking for Alliances. 

DeRoche also notes the team’s innovative robot design, 75% of whose parts were customized with CAD software and created on a 3-D printer in his garage. 

The team points out two-directional mecanum wheels, a claw-like grabbing mechanism and a lift that uses four lightweight tape measures rather than a heavy linear slide. 

With advanced JAVA programming and multiple color and range sensors, the robot travels with speed and accuracy, stacks blocks quickly to nearly 6’ high and can differentiate color – a critical skill for distinguishing picture blocks from plain ones during the autonomous phase of each match.


FTC teams can advance from qualifying tournament to state and world events not only by earning points on the playing field but also by winning one of seven awards. The awards acknowledge excellent design, teamwork, innovation and other accomplishments, as demonstrated in a team’s engineering notebook and interview with judges.

FTC’s Motivate Award, for example, honors acts of gracious professionalism, a term coined by FIRST co-founder Dr. Woodie Flowers to describe a culture that values respect and mutual gain alongside fierce competition. 

Mike Neuman regularly sees gracious professionalism in play at FIRST tournaments.

“If a robot breaks during competition, the other teams step up to help,” Neuman said. “I’ve heard of a team showing up with just a box of parts and all the other teams helped put together their robot.” 

The Pack won the Motivate Award two years ago. This year the team could be a contender for a Connect Award, which is granted for excellent community outreach. Over the past year, The Pack has presented its work at an elementary school science night, spent several days helping with a summer YMCA Lego camp and hosted a booth at Klamath’s Third Thursday summer street festival. 

The Coyotes are hopeful for the prized Inspire Award but know that competition will be stiff. Said Gebauer, “We’ll have to be on top of our game.”


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