There was anticipation in the air in Kathy Smith’s classroom at the Chadron Middle School as two robotics teams awaited the final results in the Wonder League Robotics Competition. As the time for the live-streamed announcement came and went without the announcement, nerves grew frayed.

When the livestream finally began several minutes late, the Chadron students were awed at the project that took sixth place, certain they were out of the running. But when it was time for the third place winner to be named, shouts of joy rang out as they named The Cardinals from Chadron.

“Third place went to a team from Chadron, Nebraska, that tracked the blue whale with a log book around goal setting, planning and reflections that would make any scientist proud. Their teamwork came shining through in everything they did, from using JavaScript and Tinkercad to creating pizza and watermelon food sources. Way to go Team Cardinals!” said the masters of ceremony during the live-streamed awards event last week.

Rhett Cullers and Makinley Fuller, both eighth graders at CMS, reacted in stunned disbelief as they realized they had just finished third overall in the competition, which attracted more than 35,000 students from around the world.

“I’m so happy right now,” Fuller said.

The international coding and robotics competition is sponsored by Acer and Microsoft. Students across the globe must use Wonder Workshop robots Dash, Dot and Cue to complete several missions as they advance through the competition. This year’s competition focused on creating a robot and programming it to locate lost sea creatures and return them to their nest, Cullers explained.

“We did a lot of background research on the project,” he said. The pair created a slideshow about migration patterns and kept a journal of their work.

Chadron Middle School entered five teams in the competition, with all of them competing in the first five missions, which built upon each other, becoming increasingly more difficult, Smith said. Two of the school’s teams – The Cardinals and Cardinal Pride – were invited back for the sixth and final round of the contest after finishing in the top 15 of their age division. The Cardinal Pride team consisted of Parker Fisher, Gavin Sloan, Zander Rust and Caden Galbraith.

“(Cardinal Pride) finished pretty high up, too,” Smith said, even though they didn’t make the final six.

The final mission required Cullers and Fuller to find a way to program their robot to return their sea creatures – three ping pong balls – to their nests – three Solo cups.

“You had to be really creative,” Cullers said.

The pair used Tinkercad to create potential design ideas, though their final version of their robot was not among the designs they developed with the software. They went through more than one version as they worked through the challenges, including one robot with octopus arms. When the front of their robot was too heavy, they designed a counterweight to keep it balanced, Fuller added.

With two weeks until the final deadline, the team realized they had all of the supplies they needed but hadn’t started any of the coding for the sixth mission.

“We had to try and work fast,” Fuller said, explaining that they dedicated time to the project both in and outside of school, working around other commitments.

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When the project began, neither of them were particularly thrilled at the idea of creating and programming robots.

“We didn’t like it,” Cullers said.

“We were not interested in it at all,” Fuller added. “But then we really got into the competition.”

As they accepted congratulations from their classmates last Thursday after the awards ceremony, they were still stunned at their good fortune.

“When we saw the sixth place winner and how awesome it was, we thought we weren’t even going to be close,” Cullers said.

“It was so nerve-wracking,” Fuller exclaimed.

Smith was able to have her students compete in the contest in large part due to a grant from Great Plains Communications. She received a $5,000 grant last year to purchase robots for her class and incorporated them into the curriculum.

“The coolest thing is to watch the kids do problem solving,” she said.

Cullers and Fuller designed a robot that used a “sweeper” arm to push the ping pong balls onto a platform that then was able to rotate to deposit the balls in the cups.

They were unable to complete the mission exactly as required during the final round, forced to put two of the ping pong balls in one cup, but their concept worked.

Smith plans to continue the use of robotics in her classroom, and she will take a two-week class in Lincoln this summer in order to pilot the new computer science curriculum being rolled out. She’s also part of CMS’s Coding Camp June 24-28 from 8 a.m. to noon. Interested middle school students can still enroll in the camp, but it is limited to 16 students, Smith said.

The Wonder League Robotics Competition is open to students ages 6 to 14 from around the world, with the grand prize winners in each of three age divisions winning a $5,000 STEM grant from Wonder Workshop and a robot of their choice. The contest began its first missions last October, with the sixth invitational round wrapping up in March. The top five teams in each division – including Cullers and Fuller – will receive a robot of their choice, while the top 15 teams selected for the final round – including CMS’s Cardinal Pride team – will receive an Acer TravelMate Spin Notebook, according to a press release from the competition.

“We are inspired by the incredible response to this year’s Wonder League competition, as the number of teams participating has grown from over 1,150 in our first year to nearly 7,900 this year. The competition provides an opportunity for all students to explore coding and robotics while learning the vital skills of collaboration and problem (solving),” said Vikas Gupta, CEO and co-founder of Wonder Workshop in a press release. “As parents and teachers, by providing all kids with access to robotics and coding today, we are giving rise to a far more diverse future generation of creators and problem solvers.”

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