GARDINER — When Aaron Basford started the robotics team with four students in 2012 at Gardiner Area High School, he had no experience with robotics. Four years later, the team has 17 members and is working on building its most complex robot.

“There’s a great variety of things going on with robotics, and it’s really exciting,” Basford said Tuesday afternoon during at the team’s workshop. “It’s become a passion.”

The Gardiner Iron Tigers have worked on their robot, dubbed “Sir Lanc-a-bot,” for about 15 hours per week since Jan. 11 in anticipation of this weekend’s FIRST New England District Pine Tree Regional competition in Lewiston.

The theme of this weekend’s competition, which starts Friday with an opening ceremony and qualifying matches, is to breach the castle. Team’s will use their robot to avoid obstacles forming the castle’s outer defenses, including a drawbridge, before throwing boulders over the castle wall in hopes of breaching the castle.

“We had a whole team discussion to decide which obstacles we wanted to breach,” Basford said. “There is a whole lot of strategy that goes into deciding how you want to attack the game.”

During Tuesday’s meeting, final preparations were taking place throughout the workshop, which looks like a mash-up of a science laboratory, a wood shop, a junkyard and an arts-and-crafts room. Students were tweaking the robot, an Erector-Set style contraption they hope will be good enough to win the competition, using aluminum, steel and several sharp blades and electrical tools only for the trained.

“What kids are getting out of this program more than anything else is that it’s not about building robots,” Basford said. “It’s about problem solving, and the robot is just the vehicle for solving the problem and working together.”

Basford, 45, worked with the Gardiner Community Middle School LEGO league team; and when his son, Ian, a 17-year-old senior, moved to ninth grade, he decided to start the high school club. He said the club has grown because of word of mouth, and the team has eight new students this year, all friends of other students who have been involved.

The team, including six girls, contains a mix of honors students, home school students and traditional “shop kids,” Basford said. Shop classes don’t exist in school anymore, so Basford said those students gravitate to the robotics program because of all the hands-on work.

Basford said the other mentors, nearly a dozen in total, try to make sure there is no out-of-pocket expense for the students. The Iron Tigers are an official school club but receive no school funding, so the team relies on sponsors to help with the costs of building the robot, travel to competitions and parts.

Basford said the National Guard and his company, Abilis New England, have contributed $5,500 combined, which covered the $5,000 registration fee for this weekend’s event. Teams can spend a maximum of $4,000 on their robot, but Basford said the Iron Tigers have never spent more than $2,000 because they recycle their parts.

Sophomore M.K. Wilson, 15, said she was a part of the middle school team that she now helps coach and joined the team when she got to high school. Wilson said robotics isn’t just about mathematics and science, though proficiency in those areas certainly has its advantages.

“I actually hated math, but then I figured out how much math helps so much with robotics,” Wilson said. “Now I go home and practice math and try and ace every math test.”

Wilson said you need other basic skills to be successful, including problem solving and working together as a team. She also said it really helps to not get frustrated when something doesn’t go as planned.

“You just take it apart and redo it until you are comfortable,” she said. “You have to work together until you all finally agree on something.”

That teamwork and camaraderie, Basford said, was evident from the beginning. The team learned of this competition’s theme in January and immediately held a three-hour brainstorming session that was heated and contentious.

“We focus on presenting a plan and having fact-based reasons for that plan,” Basford said. “It is called the varsity sport of the mind for a reason.”

Basford said New Hampshire-based FIRST, which stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, stresses a concept called gracious professionalism, the idea that a team gets better by helping the teams around them.

“One of the great things about the program is that there isn’t the element of rivalries,” Basford said. “You are never on your own, and there’s always someone there to lend a hand.”

If the team finishes in the top 65 for the New England District following this weekend’s event, they will advance to the District Championship in Hartford, Connecticut, later this month. This weekend’s competition will be held at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee starting at 10 a.m. Friday and Saturday.

The team will host an open house to showcase its robot sometime in May.

Other areas teams competing this weekend include teams from Hall-Dale High School, Winthrop High School, Erskine Academy, Mt. Blue High School, Skowhegan Area High School and the Mid-Maine Technical Center.

Jason Pafundi — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @jasonpafundiKJ

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