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Tech Ninjas suffer narrow defeat at regional robotics tourney

Parker Junior High hosted The Illinois Suburban South League FIRST Tech Challenge Tournament on Feb. 17. The home team, HF Robotics’ Tech Ninjas Team (TNT), missed a top spot and a trip to the state tournament by ten points. 

The Illinois For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) league team is for high school-age students who participate in competitions that involve building and programming robots. The teams compete in league meets throughout the year. Their season culminates in regional tournaments and a state championship at the beginning of March.

The competition at Parker included 26 teams from surrounding communities—the teams of students designed, built, and programmed robots to complete complex tasks that change every year.

Coach of TNT Cameron Nelson said his highly motivated team, consisting primarily of first-year students, made it to the last match but lost because of penalty points.  “They did a great job building a competitive robot and just missed out on advancing to state by a tiny bit,” he said.


Nelson explained that success in the tournament is sophisticated. Not only are students required to build a programmable, remote-controlled robot that can complete the necessary tasks in the competition, but they also have to explain the process. 

“The robots, around 18 inches cubed, play on a 12×12 field,” Nelson said. “They have to complete multiple tasks. This year’s task involved throwing a paper airplane and stacking what they call ‘pixels’ on a backdrop.” 

Teams compete in randomly assigned alliances to earn points in the competition. Another section of the competition includes judging their public speaking abilities. 

In addition to explaining their robot and the work they did to judges, Nelson said, “They have to talk about what they are doing to support STEM in the community.” Teams are encouraged to do outreach, support other teams and speak about their efforts.

Awards are given out at the conclusion of the tournament. Some awards will allow a team to advance to the state meet, but not all of those awards are given for robotics.

The winning regional teams get a chance to improve their machines before the Illinois FIRST league state meet at Elgin Community College on March 1 and March 2. The winning alliance advancing from the tournament at Parker consists of Team Rocket and Quackology from Naperville and WEGO Robotics Rookie Cookies from West Chicago. TNT won a THINK award third place and was recognized as a second-team finalist.

Nelson, who founded the HF Robotics Team with his wife and Flossmoor Mayor Michelle Nelson a decade ago, encouraged anyone interested in learning more about robotics teams to reach out to him through the HF Science Center or by signing up to start a team through FIRST. The HF Robotics Club hopes to host some workshops at the science center this summer. 

“I would love for there to be a team in every community in the area,” Nelson said. “If any parents want to start a team, I’d be more than willing to help and support them. I think there are a lot more kids out there that would benefit from it.”

Nelson said more adult volunteers are always welcome as well. Volunteers, usually parents, lead Illinois FIRST robotics teams of up to 15 students. Organizers are also searching for a venue to host future state tournaments in the southern suburbs.

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