By Dan Hardenbrook
Inside the Norris Center on the campus of LSSU sits two of the largest sports venues in the Upper Peninsula. Hang a right after the lobby, and it brings you inside the Bud Cooper Gymnasium, home to the Lakers basketball and volleyball teams. Go left to enter the Taffy Abel Arena, the longtime home for the Laker hockey teams.
On this day, the Bud Cooper Gym has been transformed into a battlefield for the best bots from schools across the state. The gym seats 2,500 people and the place is packed. Flags are flying. School fight songs are being sung.
Across the hall, it looks more like a NASCAR pit than a hockey rink. Everyone must sign in and out. Safety glasses are required. In some areas you have to have a hard hat. Between the two NCAA stadiums stands a team of armed security guards.
Newberry’s robotics team coach Linus Parr certainly had no idea what he was in for when he signed on, after the original coach left two years ago. He felt bad for the kids and wanted them to compete. The learning curve was “steep and quick,” he said.
Parr’s Tahquamenon Phenomenon team now includes 16 students who have built a robot that they use to compete at events around the region. Like other sports, the robotics team consists of kids from different backgrounds, each with their own strengths. They must learn to work together to see success.
“They may be good in one area but not in another and that’s where they need each other,” Parr said. “They have to work together and use each other to help accomplish their goals.”
Spend any time around any robotics team – they are everywhere, including Engadine, Pickford, Rudyard, and Brimley – and you will hear the phrase “Gracious Professionalism”. FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), the company most responsible for the robotics revolution, teaches that as their motto. It’s the only competition I’ve ever seen where teams try to defeat each other while building each other up and offering a helping hand.
During competition, teams report to a central command that they need parts or assistance. An announcement is made on the loudspeaker, and teams from all over come racing to the rescue.
That would be the same as me asking the team on the other sideline to let me borrow equipment so I can beat them.
How many baseball teams give away their bats? Parr said it goes back to Gracious Professionalism.
Like traditional sports teams, robotics requires money. Parr says the “Tahquamenon Phenomenon” team takes no money from TAS. They are completely self-funded.
“My main job as the coach/mentor is to go after grants and resources to help them do their jobs,” Parr said. The list of grants and donations include $500 from the Neebish Island Women’s Association through a fund that was a memorial for Parr’s mother, Dorla. The Michigan Department of Education awarded the team a $3,200 grant. The Tahquamenon Education Foundation is covering the cost of the team’s electronic equipment. FIRST awarded them almost $2,200 through a grant to offset costs for running the program.
Team members handle marketing, promotions, and where to apply for sponsorship, Parr said. The list of items they need is endless.
“If there is a business or individual that can help us in a specific way, we will take it. Those goods and services are just as valuable,” Parr said. He and his students just launched an Amazon wish list for needed supplies, which can be found on their Facebook page.
When a star athlete gains the attention of colleges and universities, they can earn athletic scholarships to the school of their choice. It’s no different in the world of robotics. Millions of dollars each year are awarded to students who spend time in a robotics program. FIRST gave out 90 million dollars in scholarships last year alone. Second-year seniors are encouraged to apply, and can earn up to $25,000 each. Upper Peninsula universities are getting on board. Michigan Tech offers $4,000 in scholarship money and LSSU, with a new program, gives out $3,000 each year.
Soon, TAS will have a middle school program developed and mentored by high school students to develop interest at a younger age. There are strict rules and regulations, from the season launch date January 4, to the first competition in Escanaba in early March. Only so much time to build, only so many adjustments can be made. The robot itself gets inspected by a team of technical experts before and after each event. The crowds are loud. The excitement and energy is electric. The World Championships draw 45,000 people to downtown Detroit. That’s more than the four pro sports teams in the city. That excitement is now making its way to Newberry. It’s time to realize that robotics is a real sport. There is a phenomenon taking over at TAS, and its newest team is the Tahquamenon Phenomenon.