What could arguing a case in court or spending hours in a law library possibly have to do with programming robots to toss balls into a box or climb onto a simulated steam-powered flying machine?

Nathan Acuff knows the answer to that question.

In both First Robotics Competition and the legal arena, says Acuff a Union High School senior, “You have to work with others to find solutions to problems.”

Acuff and the rest of Fiercely Uknighted Nation (F.U.N.) 6630 – the team number is assigned by the contest organizers – are heading to St. Louis today to begin preparing for the World Championships.

Last month, the F.U.N. team members achieved the very unusual success of advancing to the World event to compete against hundreds of teams from throughout Europe and Asia, as well as the U.S., even though it was their very first FIRST Robotics event.

They left at 6 a.m. today, and will soon begin joining their fellow competitors at the Dome in St. Louis, where they will set up their robot, become acclimated to the competition arena, meet new friends, choose new alliance partners, and see if they can continue their success.

Several team leaders recently spent an hour in the Union HS shop room, discussing the FIRST Robotics Challenge, and what they have learned from it.

The only other senior on the team is Hallie Spore, who works with the communications/marketing part of the team. She and others have made presentations to local organizations, as well as the John Deere Foundation, which has sponsored F.U.N., and paying the thousands of dollars in entry fees for the regional and world competitions.

Spore says she loves the opportunity to work on the project, even though she does not do any of the robotics.

Like many others, Spore says being part of the team, which began working together in January, has taught her a variety of skills, as well as how to multi-task. Many F.U.N members were also in the spring musical, and they hurried back and forth from the shop to the auditorium for several nights over a several-week period so they could prepare and succeed at both projects.

The students laugh as they talk about how Mr. Mitchell waited for them – patiently at times, not quite as patiently at others – to get from the robotics room to the stage. Later, though, they rewarded Mr. Mitchell for his patience, as several Union singers were asked to perform the National Anthem before the regional competition – one of several events this school year where Union singers did so. Mr. Mitchell was also among the first to make a donation on the F.U.N. Go Fund Me page.

And with a team that would need to spend nearly $20,000 on equipment and entry fees, funding was a top priority.

That’s where the John Deere Foundation comes in.

One of the team’s adult mentors is Craig Puetz, a retired John Deere manager who worked in the design and development of advanced drive trains for off-road vehicles for more than 35 years.

Puetz said the FIRST Robotics team is among the John Deere Foundation’s favorite things to sponsor, because of the need for people with engineering education and skills in businesses like John Deere. In addition to working with the Foundation on funding request, Puetz helps offer advice about designing the robot’s mechanical components.

While many of the team members work on the actual programming or design of the robot, others have helped create newsletters, organize fund-raisers, create a web site and conduct other projects designed to raise community awareness of the team and its needs. Emily Schmidt and Zeke Seuser worked with Spore on these PR projects. The team also designed the F.U.N. logo, and promotional materials such as t-shirts and caps.

One of the programmers is Dan Johanningmeier. He said that even though Union’s team of a dozen or less was vastly outnumbered by teams with 50 or more participants, the smaller number of people was actually an advantage.

Explaining that the team had to work on a strict time schedule, Johanningmeier said that fewer participants means fewer technological ideas and suggestions to sort through and try. That made the smaller Union team more efficient, he said.

Team member Wesley Hanson earned a unique award at the Regional contest at the UNI-Dome. He was chosen as one of the FIRST Robotics Dean’s List honorees – another unusual accomplishment for a rookie team. Judges were impressed with Hanson’s knowledge of the project, and his answers to questions as they toured the Dome, speaking to participants

All of the team is heading to St. Louis today, but some of them have made arrangements to return to Union by Saturday, for Prom.

“I was really looking forward to Prom,” says Spore, who had already made arrangements for her dress when she found out that the World Competition in St. Louis took place the same weekend as Prom. The students considered not going to St. Louis, or possibly competing in the Houston World Championships (where the nations not represented in St. Louis will compete). Finally, they chose the St. Louis route, where the engineering team members decided to skip Prom to compete.

The team’s success is the result of that efficiency, and how well the students have worked together, says Maureen Hanson, one of the adult mentors who has spent the most time with the team.

Hanson has nothing but praise for the team members.

“I won the lottery with these kids,” she says. “They are awesome.”

Next year, and beyond

This is just the first year for team 6630. Next year, the underclassmen will take over, filling the roles of seniors Acuff and Spore. The success of this year’s team has already inspired more Union students to sign up for next year.

Acuff, while planning to attend Mount Mercy in Cedar Rapids, says he does not plan to pursue any engineering classes while focusing on his law degree. But he already knows that this time next year, he will be working as a mentor with a team of high school robotics enthusiasts.

See an earlier story about how Fiercely Uknighted Nation became one of the very few Iowa teams to make it to the World Championships HERE.

See a story about “Steampunked,” the theme of this year’s FIRST Robotics, and the purpose of the FIRST contests and what the letters of FIRST stand for, HERE.