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RoboScout Squad codes a state win, ready for world championship

by HILARY MATHESON
Daily Inter Lake | February 25, 2024 12:00 AM

The Kalispell-based RoboScout Squad is motoring forward to the FIRST Tech Challenge World Championship in Houston after a stellar performance at the state level.

Described by state judges as “fearless and determined” on and off the field, the team received the prized Inspire Award.

Making up the RoboScouts are veterans Kennedy Dortch, a Flathead High School senior and Zia Walker, a home-schooled high school senior; and rookies Marin Colley, a Glacier High School junior and Lillie Groom, a West Valley School eighth-grader.

“I’m really excited to go and network with these different teams from around the world who represent their countries and states,” said Groom, who has her sights set on becoming a future astrophysicist. “I’m really happy my team and I get to represent Montana.”

The squad spent months building, coding and refining a robot to be competition-ready to complete missions and objectives. This year’s game centered around an artistic theme to celebrate the role the arts play in science, technology, engineering and math. The 12-by-12 field featured trusses, riggings, a stage door, a backdrop, and a backstage area for robots to traverse and collect “pixels (plastic discs)”, placing them in specific areas to score points. 

The game is divided into an autonomous period, a driver-controlled period and an end game, where players can launch drones from their robots or suspend them from rigging.

THIS WAS also a standout year for the squad, which was responsible for hosting the game reveal for the state in September, which meant signing a non-disclosure agreement to build the game in advance, according to RoboScouts coach Krista Nunally.

While every team gets the same kit — “Every robot ends up looking very different,” Groom said.

Nunally agreed.

“You have one problem with 6,000 solutions. Every team comes up with slightly different ways to approach the problem,” she said.

Groom said the team’s focused on building a robot with versatility in mind. The squad’s robot features an arm, but also a spinning feature reminiscent of a combine reel picking up crops on a farm.

During the season, the squad participates in scrimmages to further refine their robot.

“By the state level you have a pretty well-developed robot,” Groom said.

Participating in the FIRST Tech Challenge goes beyond learning to build robots. Teams also present to judges, explaining their design process, and submit engineering portfolios describing the work they did throughout the season.

“It’s so much more than building and coding a robot,” Nunally said. “They’re also learning teamwork, public speaking, presentation skills, being of service to others — mentoring other kids in their robotics journeys.”

Even at competitions, challengers form alliances. Teams are encouraged to cooperate and show respect and kindness to their rivals. At state, the Kalispell team allied with an Eureka team that is also going to the world championship.

“FIRST is like a big family. You get to know the other teams. Help them when they need it. Give high-fives and congratulate each other — while still competing,” Groom said. 

“It prepares you to work with people you might have not worked with before,” she added.

The team received the Inspire Award for exemplifying these traits throughout the season and serving as FIRST ambassadors in their community with judges.

“It’s a yearlong process. It’s not just showing evidence on the day of the competition,” Nunally said about winning the award. “Have you tried to reach out and help others and not just focus on your own team or game?” These girls were really good at visiting teams and cheering on other teams.”

To be considered for the Inspire Award, the RoboScouts had to be a top contender in multiple award categories such as design, innovation, and motivation for example.

“It is the all-around award,” Nunally said. 

When asked what stood out to her about this year’s team she spoke about their high level of engagement and dedication.

“They all worked so well together,” Nunally said.

All of the girls contribute to the build and each girl brings different skills to the team.

Dortch is the team’s chief engineer in charge of building and design. Although Colley is a newcomer, Nunally said she stepped up, learning to code a First Tech robot and serving as the lead programmer. Walker is the team manager and “spirit lead,” Nunally said, while Groom is the Jack-of-all-trades, who wants to learn everything.

A season capped with a spot at the world competition and the Inspire Award “speaks to how intelligent and creative they are,” Nunally said. 

To attend the world championship scheduled April 17-20, the RoboScouts are trying to raise $30,000 to cover expenses. People may donate online at https://www.gofundme.com/f/roboscoutsquad2024. People who prefer to donate another way or sponsor the team may email info@roboscoutsquad.com. 

To see the robots in action a recorded livestream of the state championship may be viewed at http://tinyurl.com/MT-FIRST-Tech-Challenge-stream.

For more information about the RoboScouts visit roboscoutsquad.com.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

    Marin Colley, Zia Walker, Lillie Groom and Kennedy Dortch of the RoboScout Squad advance to 2024 FIRST Championship in Houston April 17-20 following their performance at the state level.(Photo provided by Krista Nunally)