Before COVID-19 came around, school and work were pretty routine: The alarm clock went off, we got up, got dressed, got in our cars or on the bus, and off to the ’ol grind we went. One could describe it as being on auto-pilot.
When the pandemic shut down normal classes at Weiser High School, its robotics students found themselves having to reprogram with little notice. For the program, first established nine years ago, it meant no competitions, and working on projects at home instead of the classroom.
In an interview on Feb. 25, robotics teacher Jon Lundberg shared his observations about how the incoming pandemic reprogrammed the mood in his class. Among the cancelations affecting his class was one which was more painful for seniors than the others: The five-day VEX World Championships which had been planned to be held in Houston, Texas.
“It was devastating, ’cause it’s a big deal; Going to the world’s is a big deal,” said Lundberg. “We’ve been there three times. Should have been there last year but because of COVID they canceled the World’s last year, which is disappointing because we had one team that qualified for them.”
That team, number 9551-A in competition mode, comprises seniors Logan Ankarberg, Gabriella Barbot, Ethan Davis and Luke Johnson.
In a group interview, Ankarberg said that while he and his team were working on their robot for the 2020 championship, at the same time they started to see the writing on the wall.
“We kinda knew; We kinda figured” it might be canceled, said Ankarberg.
“We tried not to think about it,” added Johnson. “We were still upset about it.”
“I know my older brother, Andrew, who was on the team last year and graduated was really annoyed, because that was his last year to go to Worlds,” added Barbot.
When classes resumed at Weiser this school year, Ankarberg said the team aimed to make a comeback for a possible 2021 run in Worlds by sweeping the competition, “if they have it.”
“It was planned for being in person until a month ago,” said Johnson. “Then they switched it to remotely.”
Competition this year started out in the form of virtual, skills-based meets, according to Lundberg.
“We’ve done pretty much what we set out to do,” said Davis. “We’ve won second place in one tournament and won first place in every single other one.”
Barbot added the team has won a Judge’s Award this year.
Even with social distancing requirements in place at school, this team has hardly spent time apart from one another outside of school.
“It hasn’t been too different from last year,” said Johnson. “We’ve been able to come do robotics all year. Even when we were on A-B schedule [alternating two-days a week in person], we still had to come in every day for physical classes.”
“The four of us know each other pretty well in our personal life as well,” noted Davis. “We’ll also occasionally take the robot back to one of our houses and work on programming or building it over the weekend.”
“Over the summer, we took it home,” said Ankarberg.
Out of the four, only Davis reported having gotten COVID-19.
“It wasn’t the most fun, for sure. It just brought more challenges with the robot but after the couple of weeks I came back and we got right back at it,” said Davis.
Barbot added that the lack of competitions in 2020 actually helped the team focus on improving its robot.
“Not having a competition actually makes it a lot easier, ‘cause you’re not trying to get a robot that works out. You’re trying to get the best robot that you can,” she said.
Today, the class has six teams which meet in person to brainstorm, design, build and test robots for competition.
“On a regular year, we’d compete against robots throughout this side of the valley and across the state,” said Lundberg.
He praised his students for not letting circumstances shut their spirits down.
“They’re very sharp and they have a wonderful robot this year that’s doing really well,” said Lundberg. “I just tried to empathize with them as best as I could. There was no great answers, nothing that I could really tell them that was going to make the situation better. The words, ‘Well you have next year’ … those words [were] pretty hollow at the time. We’re all hurting together.”
What has helped them get through the pandemic is gaining perspective, said Lundberg.
“They’re great kids; They’re resilient, they were bummed out, but they understood. Not really happy about, not really happy about all last year with everything … Last year was difficult for everybody in the school system.”
Barbot noted flexibility has been a major characteristic which has helped her classmates this year.
“You don’t know what’s gonna happen, and you’re just going to have to work around it,” she said.
“It doesn’t matter if our tournaments get canceled, or not, we’re still going to have a good robot,” added Johnson.
With restrictions easing in Idaho, the robotics class was able to have its first competition of 2021 in February. As Oregon schools have reopened, it has given Weiser some competition and the former a little bit of practice. On March 3, Weiser hosted one of the few in-person tournaments happening in the Pacific Northwest, the Weiser Winter is Almost Over Tournament.
“It gets pretty aggressive out there,” said Lundberg, noting at the same time no team is allowed to destroy another’s robot in competition. “The field is the same every year, the parts are the same every year, but what they do changes, the game changes every year.”
He added that the team was fortunate to be competing in Idaho, despite schools in other states not having that opportunity.