They have five days to ship their robot.

And that means they have five days to program it, weld it, wire it, test it and rig it up to get it competition-ready for the battle in Seattle.

The 17 members of the Missoula Robotics Team - 16 of them from Hellgate High School, the other from Sentinel - are in the final days of preparation for the regional FIRST Robotics Competition, which takes place March 17-19 at Qwest Field in Seattle.

Auva Speiser, like her teammates, has spent the past five weeks of her life working on the robot, and dreaming of out-engineering the 100 teams at the Seattle regional.

"Trial and error is what it always comes down to," the 16-year-old junior said as she spent yet another day after school in Hellgate's industrial technology wing, helping build the bot. "I think it will be OK, because this is crunch time."

The Missoula Robotics Team is in its second year, led by Hellgate industrial-tech teacher Chris Jacaruso. Last year, the team placed fifth overall in the regional in Salt Lake City, and won the award for best rookie team.

Ten of last year's 12 members joined the team again this year, bringing with them a wealth of experience.

"They seem to have more of a sense of urgency in getting it done," said Jacaruso. "I think they realize how hard this is and how valuable their time is."

Sophomore Nathan Bronec rejoined the team this year and noted how much more efficient it has become. The team barely got the robot functioning last year before the shipping deadline.

"It's better put-together right now," he said. "Last year at this time, it was in pretty rough shape."

Every year, the competition rules and strategies change. This year, the challenge is twofold.

One, the robot must be rigged with an arm that can pick up plastic shapes and hang them on pegs at various heights. And two, it must contain a "mini-bot" - or miniature robot - that can be operated independently and scale metal poles on the playing field.

In each round, three robot teams - called an "alliance" - compete against three others on a 27-by-54-foot competition area, and have 135 seconds to score as many points as possible.

U.S. FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, a program started by NASA and Microsoft) ships the materials, from which the robot must be designed within engineering parameters. It also must be 100 percent designed, constructed, wired and programmed by the students, though some adult volunteers can serve as guides.

And it must be completed in six weeks.

The shipping deadline is next Tuesday. Once in Seattle, the robot will be inspected. If it is flagged for any reason as unfit for competition, the team has only one day to make adjustments.


One of the adult volunteers is computer programmer Joe Melvin, who is assisting with networking the robot with the laptop computer that will run it.

Teenagers are amazingly smart with technology, but they tend to be impulsive, Melvin said.

"So I help with the careful, go-through-it-step-by-step process of this," he said, right before Bronec chimed in with, "Yeah, we tend to cut corners."

Like he did last year, Bronec has tackled the electrical end of things on this year's robot.

"I did the electrical system again, and then programming was having some problems so I stepped in."

It's a long way from being complete. On Wednesday afternoon, the students were scrambling all around the industrial-ed wing at Hellgate.

The biggest concern? "We're still trying to focus on the arm right now," Bronec said.

Early on, the biggest concern for Jacaruso was money.

This is not an inexpensive competition. Entry fees, materials and a trip to Seattle are going to cost nearly $10,000, but fundraising has gone well, and Missoula County Public Schools Superintendent Alex Apostle recently dropped off a check for $3,000.

But the lessons these team members are learning from a whirlwind effort that's part engineering, part computer programming, but all creativity and problem-solving, are priceless.

"They do everything from programming to fabrication to design to problem-solving," said Jacaruso. "Working together is clearly the most important thing, and that's what they'll learn."

And that's the kind of education you never forget.

"These guys who have tried to solve a really hard problem will go on to solve harder problems in life because they'll have the confidence to do it."

Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at jkelly


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