Como Park High School robotics team gets a reboot

By Eric Erickson

The Como Park Robotics program got a reboot in 2023 and provided 12 committed students with an opportunity to use their emerging engineering skills.

After a few years of inactivity due to Covid-19 shutdowns and distance learning, several highly motivated students expressed interest in bringing back Como’s “BEASTBot 2855.”

Como special education teacher Mike Fischer had coached previous BEASTBot teams, sharing duties with former science teacher Donna Norberg. The duo led the team to a Minnesota State High School League state tournament appearance in 2016.

When hopeful students asked Fischer to bring back BEASTBOT, he couldn’t say no.

But Fischer also couldn’t do it alone. He agreed to be an assistant coach who would support the building process if a colleague would be the head coach and handle the administration and significant fundraising required.

Enter Como science and ELL teacher Traci Buckle, who Fischer describes as “fierce.”

Buckle, a strong advocate for students and equitable opportunities, agreed to serve as head coach. She effectively handled finances, communicated with multiple bureaucracies and worked behind the scenes to ensure the team could reach its goal of building a robot and entering a competition.

Jacob Hanson, a young Como science teacher with expertise in computers and technology, stepped up to be another assistant coach.

With a staff in place and the 2023 FIRST Robotics challenge revealed in January, Como began the “build season.” The students had 12 weeks to create a robot capable of maneuvering around a field to collect cones and cubes in order to stack them in a grid pattern while other robots simultaneously attempt to do the same.

No easy task! Especially for students who had never built a robot before and two coaches who had never done it either.

Fearless and excited, Como BEASTBot sprang into action with daily practices after school and Saturdays. From unfamiliarity with the process and each other, a deep bond developed. Como came through with an impressive performance at the 10,000 Lakes Regional. BEASTBot placed 30th out of 61 teams in its singular competition.

Next year Como would like to enter more than one event with goals of gaining experience, improving their performance and potentially qualifying for the Minnesota State Robotics Tournament (as the 2016 team did).

Each regional robotics event has a $7,000 entry fee. To reach their goals, Como needs more sponsors.

“We’ve got to raise funds to compete in more events. 3M sponsored one event for each SPPS (St. Paul Public School) team,” Buckle said. “We’re grateful for that. And now we’re on a campaign to find more funding through business sponsors and community support.”

Without any seniors on the roster, every member is primed for next year’s challenge.

This year’s junior class consisted of Anna Lovat, Gabriel Cobin, Tristan Engelmann, Sophie Warner, Daniel Klett, and Javi Ladezma. Sophomores included Prescott Clark, Gemma Kruse, Raheem Crooks, A.J. Saengsakda and Natascha Awuni. Dreshon Parker is a freshman.

Lovat was a driving force in bringing back BEASTBot, serving as a team captain along with Cobin.

She describes the experience as a “resuscitation” of Como Robotics.

“I saw building a robot as a challenge,” Lovat said. “We wondered if we could make this happen. It’s really student-led, which was enlightening. It wasn’t easy doing the work. I mean, we had to build and code a robot! In the end it was fun and rewarding.”

Lovat also explained the value of Como Robotics being open to all. “We wanted a place where all sorts of people with varying levels of ability and experience could be working on this. We wanted a space that was safe for learning, and safe for making mistakes.”

Prescott Clark was primarily on the build team. He effectively used machines such as belts saws, circular saws, sanders, and drills to help create the robot from aluminum, plexiglass and other materials.

While Como’s team is student-led, safety and training are essential. Beyond coaches, mentors were crucial. C.J. Elliott became BEASTBot’s all-around “supermentor” after Cobin’s internet searches and outreach (plus proper vetting.)

“C.J. gave us awesome tips that allowed us to improve our robot far beyond what we could have done without him,” Clark said.

Additional valued “supermentors” were David Kramer, who advised on building, and Alex Gottschalk, who provided instruction on coding.

The resuscitated Como Robotics team is a point of pride for all involved. The positive attitude and enthusiasm of the group was on full display at its competition when Como BEASTBot earned the 10,000 Lakes Regional Spirit Award.

“We’ve got a great group,” Buckle said. “It’s a fun, friendly mixture of students who are genuinely interested in learning and interacting with each other and with everyone in the robotics world.” 

Photo cutline: The Como Park Robotics team returned to action this spring, building a successful robot and positive momentum for the future. Photo by Brad Turner.

Eric Erickson is a social studies teacher at Como Park High School.

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