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For the past 13 years now, there has been a small but influential group working out of the basement of the Ingram mansion on the campus of Immanuel Lutheran High School. This group is the Eau Claire Robotics Club, otherwise known as Team TOBOR. We started out in the computer lab of Reim Hall in 2007. In 2009 we were given the basement room in Ingram for our more permanent home. We have since filled this space with both materials and tools to help the team create a quality robot and give the students a quality experience.

How does it work?

Team TOBOR is a FIRST® robotics team. FIRST is an acronym; it stands for “For the Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.” It is a non-profit organization that creates and organizes our competition every year. There are four categories in which to compete: FIRST Lego League Jr, FIRST Lego League, FIRST Tech Challenge, and FIRST Robotics Competition. Each of these categories has its own age ranges. We participate in the FIRST Robotics Competition. For additional information on any of these programs visit

Our competition does not really get started until January, so what do we do for the first part of each school year? Fundraising and training. We like to get students engaged in the team’s effort as soon as possible. First, we do as much fundraising as possible, as Team TOBOR does not receive any funds from ILC. We send letters and visit businesses to gather funds for the team to operate. In a typical year we need at least $8000 to break even. $5000 of that pays for our registration for the competition. You may think, “that sounds like a lot,” and you’d be right, but with that registration we receive over $8000 worth of materials—computer programs, sensors, motors, and so forth. The other thing that we try to do in the fall is to get the students, especially the freshmen, familiar with our build space and tools. We also use this time to train students interested in the programming for the robot. You will typically find us Wednesday evenings either in the build room or having a meeting in one of the classrooms.

In the past five years, Team TOBOR has expanded its tool capabilities by adding a Bridgeport milling machine and 3-D printers. One of my goals as lead mentor is to continue to expand our capabilities and tools. This will not only allow us to be more competitive, but also to expand the experience provided to the students. In the next five years I would like to add a metal lathe and CNC milling capabilities to our tools.

Early January is when the real competition starts. The second weekend in January, FIRST sponsors a kickoff event at many major universities and schools around the country. The event is webcast as well. This is where we learn for the first time what our game will be for that year. We are also able to pick up our Kit of Parts at this event. From the moment the game is released we have roughly six weeks to design, build and program the robot. This is when things move into high gear. We go from meeting once a week to meeting six days a week. On a typical day during the build season, students and mentors will spend three to four hours designing and building the robot.

This year’s game was called Destination Deep Space. Our playing field was about the size of a volleyball court. A cargo ship and two rockets were on the field. The game had three main aspects: Hatch Covers, Cargo, and the Had Zone. The Hatch Cover was a round piece of plastic with about a six-inch hole in the middle which can be placed on the cargo ship and rockets with velcro to hold the Cargo in. The Cargo was a thirteen-inch rubber ball. The Hab Zone was an area of the field that had three platform levels which were designed for the robots to climb on top of. Everything was given a point value. For a more detailed game description, search “FRC 2019” on YouTube.

Our competition weekend starts on a Thursday, which is a setup and practice day for the teams. This is when all the robots get inspected to be sure that they are safe and in compliance with the rules. This is also when teams can make any changes to their robot they were not able to complete during the build season. One of the most striking aspects of this competition is the gracious professionalism that is displayed. I like to explain it like this, “I want to beat you, but I want to make sure your robot is running at its best when I beat you.” What does this mean in practical terms? When a team asks for a part or a tool, usually they will receive three to five of whatever they requested within five minutes!

The competition starts out on Friday with seeding matches where each team is randomly paired with two other teams to form what is called an Alliance. Each match is two minutes and thirty seconds long. For the first fifteen seconds of each match, the robot must either drive on its own or be controlled using only video input from cameras onboard the robot. The remainder of the match is controlled with full view of the robot. At the end of the match the Alliance with the most points wins and earns ranking points. At the end of the seeding matches the top 8 teams with the most ranking points can choose who they want to work with for the Finals. The Finals is a best two out of three single elimination tournament.

Besides the competition on the field, there is a lot that goes on in the pit area. Teams of judges go around to all the pits to ask questions of the students. These questions range from fundraising and outreach efforts to the design and build process. The judges are looking for teams that fit within about a dozen award categories.

Our team got a slow start as we had to reassemble part of the robot to get ready for inspection. Once that was done the inspection went smoothly. We encountered trouble in our first seeding match on Friday but performed well for the rest of our matches. We ended the seeding matches in twentieth place out of sixty teams. Unfortunately, that is where our competition ended. I am very happy with how the team performed in solving problems and making efficient repairs. I am already looking forward to next year’s competition.

This year we competed at the Northstar Regional at the Mariucci Arena in
Minneapolis, Minnesota.

What does this do for the students? One of the benefits for the students is the scholarships which are available exclusively to FIRST robotics team members. This year there are over $80 billion in scholarships available; most are STEM related, but many don’t require a STEM-related field. FIRST has been described as the varsity sport of the mind. Besides the usual sportsmanship, fair play, and teamwork that your major sports teach, robotics also teaches students critical thinking, creative solutions, completing a project, and the list goes on. These are skills that the students can carry into any field they choose.

Team TOBOR has become a major
part of many students’ lives at ILC.

For some, this is their primary extracurricular activity. None if this would be possible if it were not for the dedicated team of mentors. Some of these mentors spend as much time as the students helping throughout the season. The only benefit the mentors receive is access to our tools and the satisfaction of seeing the students progress through the years.

Chris Stratton is in charge of the robotics program at ILHS. He is a member of Messiah Lutheran Church in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.