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(Janesville, WI) Nick Crow, Gazette

For students who might not be interested in sports or other school activities, St. William Catholic School's robotics team provides an opportunity to excel, Principal Diane Rebout said.

"I'm just really grateful it (the program) has been resurrected," Rebout said. "It's something that provides the kids a niche, and they have exceeded at it. It's neat to watch them come out of their shell and gain confidence. Each student is able to shine in their own area."

Coach Bob Getka said the school had a program from 2002 to 2004 before it was re-created this year.

"I've seen a massive improvement in the kids since the beginning," Getka said. "The engineers of the future are sitting in this room."

Getka, who also coaches the Janesville high school robotics program, took on the program because he thought it would be good for younger students at his daughter's school to participate in robotics.

The team is made up of 10 students in grades four through eight.

"I thought it would be interesting to see what it was like with elementary kids after spending so much time with high school kids," Getka said. "There's a big difference between high school and elementary school."

The group has performed well in its first year, Getka said. At its first competition, the team finished second overall. In the sectional competition, it finished eighth overall, advancing to the state competition in Watertown on Saturday, Feb. 28.

The winner of that 32-team competition will advance to the national competition in St. Louis.

The team works to make sure its robot makes its way through a course designed by the team. The robot completes tasks such as picking up and moving objects, changing course to avoid objects, reversing and hitting a ball into a goal.

"Volunteer mentors have been a key element of our club," Getka said. "Without mentors, we would not have been close to competing."

Seventh-grader Grace O'Leary said she was excited to join the team because she wanted to learn about programming and technical skills.

"We challenge ourselves on how to use different programs and tools on the robot," Grace said. "I've learned a lot. It's definitely a great experience. You get to learn so much about skills you're going to need in high school and college."

Unlike high school competitions, which are based solely on the robots, elementary competitions are judged 50 percent on the performance of the robot and 50 percent on a separate student project.

The Crusin' Robots project was finding a way to teach pottery to visually impaired students. The group came up with a plan to use a mobile app that speaks instructions, while using a 3D printer to teach the stages of the process by allowing students to use their sense of touch.

The group partnered with students from the Wisconsin Center of the Blind and Visually Impaired to test the project.

"Working with them was a great experience," Grace said. "They were attentive and independent and were excited to learn."

Getka said he is excited to see the program grow next year. He expects nine of the 10 students back next year, as well as some new faces.

"The kids really work hard," Getka said. "The school has been very, very supportive. It's been eye-opening and really been great."

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