Every year over 50,000 students from across the country take part in an event that tests their mental and physical mettle. It's the only varsity sport where almost every participant can go pro. The FIRST Robotics competitions pit schools against one another in a battle of the brains.
Elijah Donnell, a member of Marquette Senior High School's Team Cold Logic, tries to describe the experience.
"You don't get the full experience until you go to the competition. There's all these people who are excited and screaming and dancing. Last year I got really, really excited. I geeked out," explained Donnell.
Team Cold Logic is comprised of ten students and thirteen mentors. Together, they must work in concert to design and build a prototype from scratch that is capable of completing a specific physical feat. And they only have six weeks to do it.
Gabe Appleton is a new addition to the squad, and he's quickly learning that even a seemingly simple task doesn't come easy.
"The goal this year is surprisingly difficult given that it's just throwing a Frisbee," lamented Appleton.
The objective requires robots and their handlers to shoot Frisbees into elevated goals. But the action isn't limited to one robot. Five other units will be shuffling around the arena at the same time, vying to win at all costs. Teams have to configure their machines in a way that allows them to shoot and retrieve Frisbees while defending themselves.
"We have our ideas, we just don't know how to make them. And that's where the mentors help."
Mentors, like Wes Hanna and Roger Bentlage, are a wealth of knowledge for the kids. They've spent twenty plus years engineering and manufacturing for companies like GM. Their practical expertise helps bring the kids' ideas to life.
"They know what they want to do. They just don't know what kind of component they need to accomplish it," remarked Bentlage.
But the mentoring isn't limited to engineering.
"Whether they go into a technical field or not, I think that interaction of learning how to achieve a goal as a team is probably one of the most fundamental things we can give the kids out of this," said Hanna.
And the students need to achieve quite a bit. They are tasked with doing everything from making travel and lodging arrangements for competitions to writing business plans that will help them collect the $12,000 needed to compete.
"A lot of people have a lot of ideas, but if you can't get them into one cohesive unit, it doesn't work at all," Appleton added.
It takes a lot of teamwork and camaraderie to accomplish all of their goals, but they've done just that, to a surprising degree.
"They immediately broke themselves into teams based on their own disciplines according to what they thought they were best at. It's pretty interesting for kids that are sophomores through seniors in high school," Bentlage continued.
The team even coined an expression for their constructive demeanor: gracious professionalism.
"Our discussions might get a little, shall I say, passionate. That being said though, we'll decide on a direction, and if it wasn't their direction, they're fine with that. It's for the good of the team, and we move forward with whatever project we have ahead of us," Hanna added.
With three weeks left, there is still a lot to be done, but the team has a battle cry that encompasses their objective: fail faster.
"Which might sound a little, I don't know, it doesn't sound good. But it is good because you learn from your mistakes," Donnell admitted.
And that's really what the program is all about. Their first couple designs didn't work, but they learned where they failed.
"Now that we've narrowed it down to a few that can work, we're actually having a pretty easy time putting it all together," Appleton agreed.
The mentors' constant support and patience to fail has brought Team Cold Logic success in the past, and the future looks just as bright.
"We wouldn't be a team without them," Donnell concluded.