- Associated Press - Saturday, February 6, 2016

MYRTLE POINT, Ore. (AP) - The classroom of Myrtle Point High School math teacher Joshua Hebebrand is buzzing with activity. The BotCats are getting ready to roll; they have just two weeks to prepare for a qualifying tournament in Hillsboro, which will determine whether they will then go on to the statewide tournament in Portland. Not bad for a first-year team.

“We did not expect to go very far,” Hebebrand said, while guiding the nearly dozen students - about half boys and half girls, grades 7 through 11 - through another afternoon of preparations.

The team formed this academic year, after determining last year that there was sufficient interest. Hebebrand, who was hired two years ago, said the prospect of advising a robotics team actually came up in his interview.

Now Hebebrand, an upper-level math teacher, coaches the team alongside Courtney Comer, who teaches lower-level math.

Meet MER

MER came to the BotCats in a big plastic box: 843 pieces, no instructions and unlimited potential.

Rustin Hodge, a junior, explained the origin of MER’s name, coming from a classroom doodle about a cat.

On Jan. 28, with just two weeks to go until the Feb. 14 qualifying tournament in Hillsboro, the combination of coders and builders had transformed MER - the name is an inside joke - into a loosely functional prototype. They added an arm and strengthened it with extra motors to give it better gripping strength. They used the high school’s 3D printer to print additional parts. But as a quick demonstration showed, MER still had a way to go before becoming something “that will function in an arena for several matches,” Hebebrand said.

While it’s not quite “bot-fighting,” Hebebrand said, eliciting some laughs from his students, robots do go head-to-head in a series of competitions, called “missions,” where they must complete a task. Bots must function on their own for 30 seconds, then under remote control for two minutes while they attempt to compete the mission.

This year, the theme of the competition, hosted by nonprofit FIRST, is “Rescue.”

Already, the team has won accolades, entering a league championship in Junction City ranked No. 12 and emerging No. 9. Better yet, they were part of a winning alliance that secured them a place at the Feb. 14 qualifying tournament.

Meet the team

The BotCats meet three times a week, though they are often broken down into smaller groups. The coders meet on Mondays and the builders on Tuesdays. On Thursdays, both groups get together.

The Thursday meetings are often frenetic, with team members not currently working on MER finding different distractions. One girl broke out in jumping jacks.

“Sometimes they need to burn off a little energy,” Hebebrand deadpanned.

Several team members were busy on the afternoon of Jan. 28.

Joshua Johnson, sophomore, and Keagan Burgess, freshman, co-piloted MER using a pair of video game controllers. Johnson admitted that he plays a lot of video games, and said he liked the team because “it’s impressive what you can do.”

Burgess said he joined because it offered him an outlet for two of his passions.

“I like helping and I like building,” he said.

While Burgess and Johnson were handling piloting duties, Sophia Alvarez, seventh grade, and Caitlin Huff, sophomore, worked on MER’s wheels and wiring.

Alvarez said she joined the club because of an interest in building, and added that being new to the school this year, “I thought joining a club would be cool.”

Alvarez said she was pretty confident in MER’s prospects in Hillsboro.

Huff said she was a little nervous, but also confident.

Beyond the machine

Though a robot is an important part of a robotics team, it isn’t all building and coding.

Hebebrand said the aim of the competition is also to encourage students to get engaged in their communities, including seeking out sponsorships. Doing so can even win recognition at tournaments.

He said the BotCats were just beginning to explore ways they can reach out to the community.

The BotCats’ inaugural year has been a learning experience for all, Hebebrand said, with students’ knowledge and enthusiasm receiving a significant boost after attending a workshop in Portland earlier this school year.

“We’ve got a lot of growing to do,” Hebebrand said, but later added that he has been “blessed by what they’ve been able to accomplish.”

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Information from: The World, https://www.theworldlink.com

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