Mechanical whirs occasionally interjected the problem-solving conversation which murmured throughout one of Fort Calhoun High School's industrial technology classrooms recently.
The whirs and conversation came from a group of nine sophomores, juniors and seniors split into three groups working on three different robots, which the students use to learn various engineering related skills and compete in state competitions against larger class A and B schools.
"A lot of schools are doing it as an after-school activity. With the school board and (Principal Jerry Green) and stuff, I think they felt like having it as a class, it would benefit kids who are into engineering and kind of looking for something else," said Industrial Technology teacher Roy Prauner, who heads the school's robotics class. "Plus, it's basically a STEM class. It's a good spin-off of your science, your math, it gives them technology. It's just a good all around class for getting everything in."
Prauner, who ran a robotics class at a school he previously taught at, started teaching Fort Calhoun's robotics class in 2014, he said. Since then, the class has seen increased success and expects to nearly double its enrollment in the coming years.
"We're thinking our class sizes are 15 to 18 moving forward in the next couple years because part of the (High Ability Learners) program at the elementary has robotics, so we're getting kids that have been doing it for two or three years, then they come here, and it's offered," Prauner said. "They're more likely going to continue to do it."
During a school board meeting March 11, Green said Fort Calhoun's robotics program was visited by representatives from Blair Community Schools last fall. A similar class will be offered at Blair High School next year. Green said the visit is a testament to how well the robotics program has done at Fort Calhoun.
"Schools our size don't have robotics programs, they don't exist at the high school level," he said. "What we do is very rare. When we compete, we have to go to the class A, the big class B schools."
Sophomore John McKennan said he had worked with robots in elementary school and wanted to continue building his knowledge in a more substantial way than a past-time.
"I've been doing robots at my house, and I wanted to do something that was standardized and not just random stuff," he said.
On March 22, McKennan and his classmates were preparing their robots for a Skills USA state competition in Grand Island on April 12. The students in the class were going back and forth between their group's and others robots getting tips and offering advice on function and design.
"Our first robot had a different design, now we have a design close to (John's), that's kind of the way we go in here," senior Jose Zapata said. "Trying to get things that work the best, and putting it together to see how it goes."
Prauner also offered his advice to a group of seniors with veteran students of the robotics class.
"You can tighten that up. You'll probably have to change those out," Prauner said, pointing to various robotic parts.
Prauner said two groups will compete at the Skills USA competition, where students will be critiqued on how well their robot can complete tasks such as shooting a tennis ball at targets or placing discs on stands. Robotics teams are also judged on professionalism.
"The Skills USA, they all have to have resumes, they all have cardboard presentations. They'll take a test, they'll do interviews. More of a job-like atmosphere," Prauner said. "The Skills USA really presents it as 'You're trying to get hired for a job and your robot is how you're getting hired.' The way that the build is set up for the competition is like 'OK, we're a manufacturing company and we need all of this to go to here, and how are you going to do that using your robot?'"
The students will prepare the next two weeks for the competition with one member of the group working on the robot, using mockup designs created on SketchUp. Another member will work on the presentation while another programs the robot since the competition requires both manual robot driving and autonomous motion.
But the students won't dive into the competition without getting experience outside of the classroom. They've already competed in one competition this year at Benson High School in Omaha, where two teams finished 17th and 41st, respectively, out of 88 teams. Now, the students are focused on perfecting their designs for their upcoming career-centered presentation.
"We use the first couple tournaments that we go to that are just (driving) to kind of practice to get our robot where we need to be," Prauner said. "Then when we go to this, we should have robots that we practice with and then we add all the other stuff."
Prauner said other smaller schools like DC West and Arlington seem to be moving closer to having robotics classes, but Fort Calhoun is one of the early small-school adopters. He hopes the early start will allow the program to grow and improve as more students become veteran robot engineers.
"We're starting to get younger kids earlier, and the plan is hopefully they stay two to three years," he said. "The more years they do it, the better the robots get."