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Marshalltown Botcats learn far more than robotics

T-R PHOTO BY SHANNON RABOTSKI Botcat members Marek Jablonski, left, and Jovanny Tellez work on the team’s robot, which will be used in a competition Dec. 14.

Peppered in the Marshalltown High School’s club directory along with marching band and FBLA is the lesser-known engineering and robotics team, the Botcats.

Community members can see the team in action at the FIRST Lego League Jr. Expo at 10 a.m. on Dec 14.

The expo will take place in the MHS cafeteria. A qualifier meet will take place from 8 a.m. until 1:30 p.m. in the MHS Roundhouse, then the FIRST Tech Challenge and FIRST Robotics Competition robots will be shown from noon to 1:30 p.m.

With only 13 members, the team is small in number but large in terms of opportunity and student development. It operates as part of a national organization- For Inspiration and Recognition in Science and Technology (FIRST) in the FIRST Tech Challenge program.

The program aims to develop the engineering skills of students ages 12-18 and allows them to participate in robotics challenges and meets. Starting in September, the Botcats attend meets around the state leading up to the largest meet in January. Throughout the months, they are continuously adding to and developing their robot.

At the meets, the students must present their robots and work with other teams, allowing them to improve their communication and teamwork skills.

Though the team’s name suggests a focus entirely on robotics and engineering, students are able to grow in significant ways, preparing themselves for careers in any profession.

“No matter what careers they end up in, if it has nothing to do with engineering or robotics, I think they’re learning skills here that will benefit them lifelong,” marketing and outreach mentor Carol Geil said.

For junior Morgan Johnson, the team has been important and beneficial not only in helping her develop her engineering skills, but in showing her a widened scope of future career opportunities.

“There’s so many different things that you do,” Johnson said. “It’s made me realize that there’s more around you.”

Initially joining the team because of her interest in engineering, Johnson has since shifted toward the outreach and marketing aspect of the team. She works on the newsletters and event planning. Through the Botcats, Johnson has developed a passion for communications and outreach and hopes to take what she has learned on the team to college where she will study public relations.

While some students joined the team because of their life-long interest in robotics, others joined in hopes of learning something new about a unique and important field. Botcats provides those students with the opportunity to see first-hand into the lives of engineers and other STEM-based professionals, something that many young students do not have the chance to see. One of the many goals of FIRST is to do just that.

“We don’t put our scientists out in front of the public eye as much,” Dori Pinkerton, co-coach of the Botcats said.

Through FIRST and the Botcats, students see scientists and engineers at work in ways that they otherwise would not be able to.

Botcats exist in Marshalltown primarily due to community and school support, with donations and grants being the primary source of the team’s funding. The team has received donations and grants from Emerson, Lennox and the Alliant Energy foundation, among others. The support has caused the team to build strong relationships with community members and each other.

“This is definitely a community team,” Pinkerton said.

Though competition-based, the team teaches students to build relationships with one another and to work together above all.

“It’s not about the battlebots,” Pinkerton said. “You don’t beat each other up. You build each other up.”

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Contact Shannon Rabotski at srabotski@timesrepublican.com or 641-753-6611.