piece of cake robotics edina, posed

Bottom: Piece of Cake pose in uniform, complete with chef hats. From left are Alec Becker, Jack Zentner, Alex Wicklund, Naren Ghate, Teddy Cunio, William O’Connell and J.J. Irons. (Submitted photo)

A robotics team from South View Middle School isn’t letting their youth keep them from the top of the whirring, metal heap.

The team, called Piece of Cake, is in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, this weekend for the Super Regional Championship in FIRST Robotics League’s Tech Challenge division, which consists of students in grades 7-12. The South View team is on the low end of that age spectrum, with five of its seven members competing as seventh-graders, but they advanced to the quarterfinals in a field of 48 teams in the Feb. 9-10 State Tournament.

A team that young isn’t supposed to make it to state in the first place, according to Ging Wiandt, one of the team’s coordinators.

“It’s very rare for a middle school team to advance to state,” Wiandt said.

But Piece of Cake did, living up to FIRST’s acronym: For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. FIRST runs robot competitions across the country and beyond, encouraging budding tinkerers and computer programmers to put their knowledge and skills to the test, as they run their custom robots through a set of objectives in arena-style competition.

As they prepared for Super Regionals early this month, Piece of Cake team members were fine-tuning their robot as they practiced their objective – to pick up foam cubes and deposit them in a receptacle. Just getting their robot to do that once was a challenge at first, they said, but now they’re working on completing the task as many times as possible in the 2 minutes and 30 seconds allotted in the competition.

Building a robot and getting it to execute the refined process is not supposed to be easy, especially not for middle-schoolers competing against high-schoolers.

“The boys were kidding one time. They said, ‘How fair is that the other boys have facial hair?’” the team’s co-manager, Tim Becker, recounted.

Becker chalks up success against such grizzled competition to “some amazing team members and really, really good talent for our build team and our coding team.”

piece of cake edina robotics, working on robot

South View Middle School robotics competitors Jack Zentner, middle, and Teddy Cunio, right, work on their robot in preparation for the FIRST Robotics League’s Super Regional Championship, while advisor Shishir Ghate lends his assistance. (Sun Current staff photo by Andrew Wig)

While robot teams get help from expert adults – and Edina has no shortage of that – Piece of Cake bring their own wealth of experience and talent, despite their youth. Some of them competed in LEGO League, FIRST’s elementary-level program.

“Some of us have just been doing it so long. For others it just comes natural,” seventh-grade team member J.J. Irons said.

Piece of Cake’s members specialize in either coding or mechanics, but the robot contests depend on more than technical skill. The competitions require robot teams to pair up with other squads as they take on opposing duos, in what FIRST calls “coopertition.” The format means social skills are key.

J.J., for instance, is in charge of scouting and networking with other teams during tournaments, building relationships and compiling intelligence that might come in handy in later rounds.

“I need to know a lot about their team and what they’re good at,” he explained.

To help make friends, Piece of Cake hands out necklace pendants shaped like a slice of cake, made by team member Alec Becker, on a 3-D printer he got for Christmas.

“Toward the end of the competition, if you’re still in the running, then you get to choose who you want to partner up with for the remainder of the competition,” said Tim Becker, Alec’s father. Piece of Cake distributes the pendants in hopes other teams will remember them should they find themselves at their mercy.

Despite the collegial spirit of the tournaments, “it’s tense at some times,” eighth-grade team member Jack Zentner said.

It’s still a game, though.

“It’s just like playing video games for me,” said Teddy Cunio, the eighth-grader serving as the team’s designated robot driver.

At the same time, “it’s a lot more than just playing with robots,” Becker said. Aside from the social skills required to excel, there is much strategy to consider. Jack’s job is to direct Teddy as his partner pilots the robot amid the chaos of a match. Four robots are on the floor at once, so keeping track of the action requires an extra set of eyes.

piece of cake robotics edina, remote control

Under the watchful eye of team advisor Brock Cunio, left, Teddy Cunio uses a remote control to practice driving Piece of Cake’s robot, while teammate Jack Zentner stands by. (Sun Current staff photo by Andrew Wig)

A sport of a different sort

“Robotics is a sport of the mind, but unlike other sports, anyone can do it,” said seventh-grade team member Naren Ghate, in a quote appearing on the cover of the team’s promotional brochure.

Still, robotics competitors are a rare breed, Wiandt observed.

“A typical seventh-grade boy would prefer to throw a ball than figure out how to program a robot,” she said.

Jack is an athlete in the traditional sense, and also considers robotics a sport, but pursues the activity despite social pressures from his friends at school.

“I consider this a sport. It’s just, I’m a little self-conscious about talking about it with my friends. I’m afraid I’m going to get called a nerd for doing this,” he said. “My friend group is very demanding.”

J.J., meanwhile, doesn’t mind being called a nerd. “All of my friends are nerds. I’m a nerd, too. It’s fine,” he said.

The socially diverse crew didn’t waste time perfecting their robot this season, a favorable development that Brock Cunio, Teddy’s father and advisor to the team, credits for their odds-defying run.

“Our success was mainly due to the fact that our original concept was a good one,” Cunio said.

While other teams were merely getting their robots to work, Piece of Cake were refining their product. When a team has to overhaul its robot, that can throw off other aspects of its game. The cascading cause-and-effect of the complex work can make it difficult for a team to recover after a poor start to the season. “It’s like trial and error,” Cunio said.

Knowing they have a device that works, Piece of Cake continue to refine their robot and their strategy.

“One of our goals is to revamp scouting in general,” Jack said.

Even for a top-level team, mechanical or coding problems can be expected during competition, requiring some quick thinking.

“There were times when our robot didn’t move,” said Julie Wicklund, co-manager of the team.

Such was the setback in the first competition, the culprit diagnosed as static on the playing surface interfering with the robot’s electrical system, J.J. said.

They still won that tournament, making it look like, to an outsider at least, a piece of cake.

– Follow Andrew Wig on Twitter @EdinaSunCurrent

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