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The robotics team housed at Conifer High School is the little team that could.

The 20-member Team Blitz 2085 from both Conifer and Evergreen schools has overcome the odds of having $8,000 worth of its equipment stolen in March 2020 and persevered through a pandemic.

The group’s hard work was acknowledged last month when it received the Innovation in Control Award at the FIRST regional competition in Flagstaff, Arizona. The award signified the team’s unique approach to getting a robot to autonomously find, pick up, aim and shoot game balls into baskets, which was this year’s challenge in the FIRST Robotics Competition.

Not bad for a team that gets its funding from donations from area businesses and organizations such as Conifer Rotary, Kiwanis and Conifer Newcomers & Neighbors. The team has a school sponsor, CHS technology teacher Eric Halingstad, and has access to the school’s technology lab, which has 3-D printers, a laser printer, tools and more.

Other teams around the country have much larger budgets to fund projects.

According to its website, “FIRST inspires young people to be science and technology leaders and innovators by engaging them in exciting mentor-based programs that build science, engineering, and technology skills, that inspire innovation, and that foster well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication and leadership.”

For team members who spent much of their spring break in the CHS workshop, the robotics team is a place where they can be themselves and make friends with others who love robotics and engineering. They agree that the team’s workshop is where they have fun working on their robot, and they do homework together and help each other.

Team mentor Mindy Hanson is proud that girls make up about a third of the team. Students in eighth- through 12th grade who are interested in joining the team can contact team mentor Mindy Hanson at mindy@alphapixel.com or by calling 303-870-1321.

In the process of creating the robot, students learn leadership skills, how to work collaboratively and more. In fact, the team — after competing in regionals — decided to rebuild its robot during spring break to make it sturdier before a competition at the University of Denver.

“During spring break, we put every second into rebuilding the entire robot,” junior Rhys Hanson explained.

Mindy, who is Rhys’ mom, noted that the team is student-led, so students make decisions on everything — what the robot will look like and how it will perform the tasks. Each year, FIRST creates a new challenge that teams must meet.

FIRST stresses what is called coopertition – cooperating despite being in a competition, Rhys explained.

“So if someone is missing a part, other teams will help,” he said. “Without help from other teams, that team would not have been able to compete.”

The idea, team mentor Aaliyah LaBarge explained, is to make sure all teams can compete at the highest level.

Alex Polackowyj, a sophomore at Evergreen High School, found his niche in the robotics team, saying it’s the perfect place to design and create, plus he has made friends and has fun.

Oscar Yaun, a sophomore at CHS, has been working with robots since fifth grade, including at West Jefferson Middle School.

“Robotics is something I understand more than other stuff,” he said, explaining that he will likely go to college for engineering.

LaBarge, a former team member, graduated from CHS in 2021 with the first cord awarded for robotics and has returned as a mentor. As a mentor, she wants to pass on her knowledge and help the team navigate the bumps that arise as they brainstorm how to build a robot that performs the tasks set out by FIRST challenge.

She originally got involved with robotics at West Jefferson Middle School, where she was put into a robotics elective class. Although she was angry at first, she quickly came to love the STEM classes, and she’s been hooked ever since.

She is now working on a degree in aerospace engineering and volunteers as a mentor for the team.

“When I joined the team my freshman year, I thought, ‘These kids are really smart.’ Then I became the lead engineer, and then I realized, ‘I’m one of the smart kids.’”