Manistee Catholic Central’s robotics program is well underway

MANISTEE – “I think I’ve always enjoyed playing with LEGO-type things and being creative,” said Dalton Diep, a seventh-grade student at Manistee Catholic Central. “When you add robots and things, then yes, I will register.”

Diep isn’t alone in feeling that way, and in its fourth year, MCC’s robotics program is a popular activity among students, with 22 kids on elementary and middle school teams.

Ellen Kosmowski helped start the program and is currently one of the coaches. She said she had the idea to start a robotics program in front of current head coach Laura Cameron and it has been gaining momentum ever since.

“I thought it would be good for the kids to have more opportunities here in a rural area. I did a little research with another parent and we were able to find this program,” Kosmowski said. “I took it to Ms. Cameron and she was able to help us get into the school with the program. … We sent a few teams out to the state. The kids love it.”

Students design and build robots that are used to complete a number of tasks on a course. The more tasks a robot completes, the more points the team gets.

“Hanging is worth 6 points. You can hang high – that’s 10 points,” said fifth-grader Phin Kiesckowski. “Each ball placed in the middle viaduct is worth 2 points, then clearing an end zone is worth 5 points and if you clear them both you get 10.”

Seventh-graders Sophia Schaub and Cheyenne Martin nearly qualified for the state competition by placing second in the Teamwork Challenge at a competition at Woodland School in Traverse City on Jan. 29.

The pair have one more chance to qualify at today’s meet in Elk Rapids. Schaub thinks she and Martin have a good chance of qualifying.

“I just need to calm down,” she said. “I like to go faster, but Cheyenne is very good at going slow and being controlled. I just need to learn how to do that.”

Martin said she got interested in robotics because she likes working with her hands.

“I’m more into cars and stuff, and I asked (Schaub) to do it with me because she did it in third grade,” Martin said.

Schaub said Martin didn’t have to twist her arm to get her involved.

“I love writing notes and I have lots of LEGOs at home,” Schaub said. “I also like to build things.”

A lot of work is needed to keep the robots running.

“We try to test our robot to see if anything is broken,” Martin said. “If it breaks, we try to improve something. … The plow falls a lot.”

Sixth grader Trinity Hurford is in her third year of robotics. She said it’s a great opportunity to socialize and learn.

“I wanted to sign up because almost all my friends are there and I wanted to hang out with them, and I’m also interested in robots,” she said. “I think they’re pretty cool, so I wanted to learn how to program and build them.”

Abigail Sell is part of the Traffic Cones team with Hurford. This is Sell’s first season of participation.

“I was interested in robots and driving, so I thought it would be cool to join,” she said. “I would be able to gain that experience.”

Riley Sturgeon said he and Diep have had a long interest in building things, so robotics is a perfect fit.

“We’ve always been into gadgets,” Sturgeon said. “During the summer (Diep) and I went to the same daycare and we were building gadgets out of LEGOs and whatever parts we could.”

Cy Kosmowski became interested in robotics after seeing the TV show “BattleBots”. He likes to program robots to perform tasks autonomously.

“What I love is coding because I just love learning about computers, how they work and how they can make other things work,” he said. “I really like physics and science and stuff like that, so I really like it. And I like driving because it’s just fun. It’s like a way to relax.”

Diep said there weren’t many competitions held this season due to the coronavirus pandemic, but the season was still successful.

“We practiced a lot,” he said. “We get better every year and that’s the goal.”

Sturgeon said he put a lot of effort into coding his building skills.

“Last year we improvised a robot. We didn’t give up on anything – we just built our own from scratch,” he said. “This year we did the same thing but improved it because we had experience from last year and we have more experience with coding.”

Brennan Sturgeon enjoys building bots more than driving them.

“(It’s more fun than driving) because you can design your own robot,” he said.

Aimee Zakrajsek, mother of Phin, Reid and Cade Kiesckowski, said the robotics program is a big plus for students.

“All of these kids love this program. … They’re supervised, but they’re building these robots themselves,” Zakrajsek said. “Engineering, gears, motors, programming – they hook it up to a computer and program it. … They do it themselves. It’s fascinating. … I think they will continue to do it for years to come. “

Ellen Kosmowski said the robotics program has had good attendance numbers since its inception.

“Sometimes we can have a few more kids, but that’s pretty good for a COVID year,” Kosmowski said. “Even last year when our tournaments were virtual, we still had a lot of kids, which was exciting. Nothing will stop them.”

Cameron said it was great to see the camaraderie between the different schools.

“We went to a contest and one boy, it was his freshman year. … He was on his own and his robot was going around in circles,” she said. “If you don’t have your robot, you don’t get any points for that round. After that, another boy from another school said, ‘I think I know what I can do to help you.’ Do you want to work on it?’

“…That’s what we want to see from our kids. We’re building our kids for our future,” Cameron continued. “We want them to be compassionate, helpful, understanding and problem-solving, and that’s what it is.”

Ryan H. Bowman