College of Engineering & Mines

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Robots, students and (fake) Blake Shelton take over Memorial Union

Middle, high school students take part in VEX Robotics Competition, hosted by College of Engineering & Mines

HS students fill te Memorial Union
High school teams filled the Memorial Union for the the VEX Robotics Competition on Feb. 3, 2024. Photo by Adam Kurtz/UND Today.

Hundreds of middle and high school students and their parents packed the main ballroom of the Memorial Union to take part in a state qualifying match of the VEX Robotics Competition, on Saturday, Feb. 3.

The event, hosted by the UND College of Engineering & Mines (CEM), saw the ballroom transformed into a battleground of sorts, as the students pitted their robots against one another in completing a series of timed tasks. The ballroom was filled nearly to occupancy with the students, their robots, parents, piles of spare parts and tools, and … country music star Blake Shelton?

Well, not the real Blake Shelton, but UND’s resident Blake Shelton look-alike, Andrew Dahlen. Dahlen is a lecturer in the Mechanical Engineering department, and he helped organize the event. With his impressive coiffure, it’s easy to see why he is sometimes mistaken for the singer/TV show host.

Andrew Dahlen
Andrew Dahlen, a lecturer in the Mechanical Engineering department, gives his best Blake Shelton smile while wearing his green suit at the VEX Robotics Competition on Feb. 3, 2024. Photo by Adam Kurtz/UND Today.

Dahlen, it appears, has a playful side, which he uses to great effect to inspire excitement and enthusiasm at the competition. And not only there: For example, Dahlen dressed up as Shelton when the singer brought his act to the Fargodome in 2016. He succeeded in getting backstage unchallenged, and from the photos, seems to have charmed the heck out of concertgoers. (A story about ‘Fake Blake’ can be found on the Inforum website.)

On Saturday, Dahlen, who was wearing a bright green suit that attendees joked could be seen from Mars, was pleased with the attendance, and the quality of the students’ engineering skills.

“The turnout is amazing,” he said. “We have 55 teams here from across Minnesota and North Dakota, and the robots are competing at a higher level.”

Students from multiple states participating in a state qualifying competition is somewhat of a deviation from other state-qualifying events. Dahlen said that because Grand Forks is a border town, he wanted to open it up to kids on both sides of the Red River. VEX officials agreed, and the competition was altered to let Minnesota students who won their competitions in North Dakota to advance to the state level in Minnesota, and for the same pattern to hold for North Dakota students.

The teams were randomly paired against one another. To win, they had to complete a series of tasks, including having their robots gather up a certain amount of foam objects within a specified time, then hang suspended off a bar, slightly off the ground.

Students used videogame-like controllers to maneuver the robots, and at times, the robots operated autonomously on instructions programmed by their builders.

For Dahlen, robotics is the perfect medium for introducing young people to technical skills needed for STEM careers. The robot must be designed (often with computer-aided drafting software), programmed, built and ultimately operated by the students.

“There are few things I’ve done in this life that are as rewarding as getting young folks excited about technology and engineering career pathways,” he said.

And there is also a social component to the competition. The students must work together on the buildout of their robots, but they also have to be interviewed by a panel of judges on how they carried out the work, meaning students get hands-on experience developing their PR skills, too.

robotics team
Members ot team “Skittles,” Oliver Gieser, Nico Licata and Finnegan Bowe take a break from working on their robot. Phot by Adam Kurtz/UND Today.

And it’s an enjoyable experience. Students even come up with fun names for their teams, like “Abominable Snowmen,” “Space Monkey Mafia,” and “Guns N’ Robots,” the latter from Fosston, Minn.

“It’s really nice, I love it; it’s a lot of fun,” said Nico Licata, of team “Skittles” from Bemidji.

The “Skittles” teammates, by the way, went on to win the “Excellence Award” for middle schoolers. A full list of the awardees can be found on the VEX website.

Licata’s mother, Erica Adams, said she enjoys watching the teammates overcome challenges, as they gain more skills and insight into developing their robots.

“They struggled with focus and team coordination early this season,” Adams told UND Today in an email. “However, they have really been pulling it together on so many levels. I’m just thrilled for them to have improved so much. The Excellence Award is a massive cherry on top of the day’s events!”

Scoring matches are members of UND’s own collegiate-level VEX team. Carefully, they watch the teams compete and mark off scores on a tablet computer. They also function as judges when it comes to interviewing the students.

Dahlen noted the UND robotics team isn’t reserved for engineering majors. Anyone across the campus is welcome to get involved.

And the CEM has tools to help students at other schools across the region get involved in robotics as well. In December, the College unveiled the UND Engineering VEX Robotics Trailer to assist schools in holding VEX tournaments.

Dahlen works to ensure the seamless setup, operation and pack-up of the trailer for each tournament held across the region. The trailer has already successfully supported tournaments in Fisher, Hawley, St. Cloud, Bemidji, and East Grand Forks, with upcoming events including the Kimball Super Mega Event and the Minnesota State Championship.

People can expect to see more UND CEM involvement in robotics with upcoming tournaments, including the FIRST LEGO League tournament, set to be held this Saturday, Feb. 10, from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., in the Memorial Union. Also upcoming is the FIRST Robotics Competition in early March at the Alerus Center.

students at robotics competition
High school students square off at the VEX Robotics Competition on Feb. 3, 2024. Photo by Adam Kurtz/UND Today.

Written by Adam Kurtz  //  UND Today