Port High’s PiraTech creation to make its debut in weekend regional contest
Port Washington High School has cheered on just about every type of team imaginable, from football, wrestling, basketball and soccer teams to musical ensembles and dance squads. But for the first time this week, the Pirates will cheer on their robotics team.
The school’s first PiraTech robotics team will take the court at the U.S. Cellular Arena in Milwaukee Thursday, Friday and Saturday to compete in a FIRST Robotics Wisconsin regional competition.
The team’s 34 members are excited, and while the mentors and advisers who assisted them share their nervous anticipation, they are struck by what has already been accomplished by a group of students who just two months ago didn’t know what they were going to do with a box of parts that became its robot.
“If our idea works, and we’re so close, I see no reason why we can’t make it to the finals,” said Alec Belling, a technology and engineering teacher at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Port who is a team adviser along with high school technology teachers Ryan Volke and Bill Kunst.
“But from a teacher’s perspective, I’m looking forward to next year because I was so excited to see how these kids rose to the challenge. Imagine what they can do next year.”
The challenge for this year’s FIRST Robotics Competition, which is billed by organizers as the “varsity sport for the mind” and features 51,000 high school students on 2,500 teams competing in contests throughout the country, was to build a robot that can climb a three-tier tower and throw discs at targets.
Robots don’t need to do both, which factored significantly into the PiraTech design. Its robot can climb but not throw, and that was no mistake. Team members made the decision to build a robot that could do one thing well and are hoping for a pairing in the contest’s unique format that will complement their robot’s strength.
“Given the right alliances, we could do very well,” Belling said.
Robots compete in teams, or alliances, of three robots in a three-on-three format. Ideally, Port High’s climbing robot will be paired with one that can throw and another than can play defense, but that’s where luck comes into play.
After Thursday’s practice matches, seeding rounds will be held Friday. Teams will be randomly grouped into alliances and points will be tallied. For the playoff rounds on Saturday, teams will be able to select their partners, and the teams with the most points get to pick first.
“You see teams that individually are very good but end up getting paired with robots that do the same thing or end up breaking down,” said Belling, who competed on a robotics team when he was in high school and credits that experience with inspiring him to become a teacher. “Every single team, including ours, will be scouting. They want to know exactly what every robot can do so when it comes time to choose alliances, they know who to pick.”
The team’s advisers and mentors are also excited to introduce team members to what FIRST Robotics calls “gracious professionalism,” a term that generally describes sportsmanship and teaches that fierce competition and mutual gain and not competing ideals.
“I watched a competition two years ago and the level of sportsmanship that was displayed was amazing,” said Kevin Gerrits, one of the team’s 15 mentors.
“One of the team’s robots failed, so they shut down the competition and all the other teams ran out with tool boxes to help fix the problem. No one was opposed to helping someone else to make sure everybody could compete. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that.”
The competition will be a spectacle. Belling compares it to a Super Bowl halftime show, but some mentors said they’ve already experienced the most rewarding part of the project during the six weeks the team had to turn a box of motors and gears into a robot.
“Some of these kids came into this project never having welded a thing in their lives and ended up making a very sophisticated machine,” Gerrits said.
The robot had to be essentially completed and bagged by Feb. 19. The team could then work on 30 pounds of extra parts for its robot.
“We’ve had our robot locked in a room for safekeeping since then,” Belling said.
Mentors, many of them engineers or skilled tradesmen, were key to a project that seeks to pair students with professionals to foster an interest in careers involving engineering, science and the skilled trades.
Also important was support from corporations that in Port High see a school that is making a needed commitment to technology education through its robotics team and other programs. One of those contributions was a $7,500 grant from Milwaukee-based Rockwell Automation that was facilitated by mentor Jim Valasek, a senior project engineer at Rockwell.
The mentors, who worked alongside students several nights a week and on weekends, were a critical part of the process, Belling said. But several mentors said they are the ones who benefited most from the experience.
“This is probably the neatest thing I’ve ever done as an adult,” said Gerrits, a tool-and-die maker by trade who is the manager of plastics manufacturing for Badger Meter Inc.
Gerrits said he volunteered to be a PiraTech mentor in the hopes his seventh-grade son will one day have the opportunity to join the team.
“That was the selfish reason,” he said. “Another reason was that somebody helped me when I was that age and I figured it was time for me to do the same.
“Honestly, I think the mentors learned more than anybody involved in this project. And one of the things I learned was that our future is in very good hands.”
The FIRST Robotics competition at the U.S. Cellular Arena in Milwaukee will be held on Friday, March 22, and Saturday, March 23. Opening ceremonies will held at 8:30 a.m. with competition beginning at 9 a.m. both days. The finals will run from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Saturday, with an awards ceremony starting at 4:45 p.m. For detailed schedule information, visit
Image Information: SIX MONTHS AFTER they opened a box of parts and began work, members of Port Washington High School’s PiraTech robotics team and their mentors put the finishing touches on their robot. Among the members were students (clockwise from left) Skyler Sandlin, Brad Chapman, Andrew Schaffer and Keefer Klenske and mentors Kevin Gerrits and Jim Valasek. The photo was taken on Feb. 19, the deadline for completing robots. Photo by Sam Arendt