Kristen and Matthew McKellar, both 15, prefer robotics over sports. The tournaments in which they compete are packed with future engineers and programmers, not jocks.
But the excitement, competitive energy and sportsmanship rival the traditional. And in their fifth year of competition, their team -- got robot? -- has secured a place in the world championships.
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The McKellars, of Elgin, compete with five other high school students from South Elgin, St. Charles, Hanover Park, Mount Prospect and Elgin, working out of the Elgin Tower Building with support from the Elgin Technology Center. They started out in a middle school league, moved up to a middle and high school league and plan to compete next year in the FIRST Robotics Challenge, which is for high school teams only.
Each move up means bigger robots and tougher competition. But Kristen said a key component of "gracious professionalism" means if other teams need help on the day of a tournament, it's their duty to pitch in.
"Even though we're there to compete, we're all there to learn," said Kristen, a budding software engineer. Her brother plans to go into engineering as well, probably mechanical.
Got robot? took the top prize at a state tournament last weekend at the Illinois Institute of Technology, guaranteeing a spot in April's world championships in St. Louis. While reveling in the win, the McKellars have been helping the Abbott Middle School girls and boys robotics teams prepare for their own tournament, which will be Saturday at Rotolo Middle School in Batavia.
"Mentoring is something we feel obligated to do because our first year we got mentored," Matthew said. "That really marked a major portion of our early robotics career."
Anne Herrmann, 8th grade science teacher and robotics team coach at Abbott, said 15 mostly 8th-grade students are on the teams this year. Jobs include working on the mechanical aspects of building the robots, designing the robots with computer aided drawing programs, writing the programming code to run the robots and working on scripts for the presentations at tournaments. Artists help with design, some students make the T-shirts for the team, others focus on record-keeping.
"There's really something for everyone," Herrmann said.
Regardless of how the teams do this weekend, the middle schoolers will compete in the state 4H tournament in April at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Herrmann plans to open up the team to new members in January and let them build a new robot for the spring.
Got robot? teammates are still deciding whether to tweak or overhaul their remote-controlled creation before their upcoming tournaments. Whatever they decide, it's more fun than work for them.
"It's just what we enjoy doing," Kristen said.