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Teens compete in FIRST Tech Challenge League

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CRYSTAL LAKE – A Crystal Lake robotics team hopes recent demonstrations will build up and electrify local competition for the emerging sport.

Octopi, a team of local teens, take part in the FIRST Tech Challenge League designing, building and programming small robots to compete in tournaments. Teams across the country participate in the league, which is designed for high school students.

With help from robotics teams based in Chicago and East Troy, Wis., Octopi held demonstrations for the community at the Crystal Lake Public Library on Wednesday.

“Our goal is to get more teams from McHenry County to compete next year,” said Kristin Noller, a 16-year-old student at Crystal Lake South High School and member of the Octopi team.

The teams showed off the skills of the robots they designed by competing to place rings on pegs at varying heights to score points.

FIRST is a nonprofit group that offers robotics programs for students ages 6 to 18. Though it was founded more than 20 years ago, its popularity is growing. More than 210,000 students participated in FIRST programs in the 2009-10 season.

The Octopi team’s efforts are getting support from one of McHenry County’s largest employers, Aptar Group, a product packaging maker eager to encourage young people to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

Sponsoring the robotics team makes sense for the company, said Hank Holly, director of operations for Aptar Cary.

“These are potential future employees for Aptar Cary. These are highly talented, motivated, and learning-driven young men and women,” he said in a statement. “It’s been very motivating for members of the management team, as well as the engineers, to witness how innovative and resourceful the robotics team really is. It becomes contagious.”

An Aptar Cary employee serves as a mentor to the Octopi team.

For local students, the robotics team is social and creative outlet that combines a number of talents and tasks. Team members must not only design, build and program a robot to complete specific operations, but also find sponsorships and organize outreach events such as the demonstrations at the library.

Kyle Braasch, 16, of Crystal Lake, joined the Octopi team to engage his passion for building things and solving problems. A student at Crystal Lake South High School, he plans to be an engineer.

“I’m interested in the engineering,” he said. “When we stepped up into using fabricated materials, that’s when it got much more challenging.”

The challenge is part of the draw for many team members.

“I love designing things,” said 16-year-old Tim Godsell of Crystal Lake. “I like using my imagination to build something.”

He said the team faced a slew of challenges in its first year. But team members said they worked together to utilize each others’ strengths.

Megan Anderson, the 16-year-old daughter of an engineer, said she enjoys thinking up different ways to solve various robotic challenges.

“It’s a lot of time and money, but the competitions are so much fun,” she said. “It’s definitely worth it.”

The Octopi team hopes to find more sponsors next year to help offset the costs of competing, which many team members bore themselves this year. Several team members said the competitions were enjoyable, in part, because of the collaborative spirit of the teams.

Patronum Bots, a team from East Troy, Wis., joined in the demonstrations Wednesday. Team member Brianna Fridley, 14, said the best part about competitions was seeing how other teams had engineered solutions to various challenges.

DeAnna Kinds, a 17-year-old member of Chicago-based team Crazy Eights, has participated in robotics for several years.

“It’s different from what is expected in my community,” she said. “And it’s a challenge.”

Fruit Salad, a Crystal Lake team that competes in the FIRST LEGO League, also took part in Wednesday’s demonstration. That league is for students in grades four through eight and uses only LEGO-based components.

Information about the Octopi team can be found at octopi6007.org and information about FIRST can be found at www.usfirst.org.

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