Staff Reporter 

Students build a better robot at MLHS


James Eik

Some of the robotics club members and mentor Dennis Schweikhardt watch their robot take a test run around the high school shop.

The competitive spirit is heating up for the robotics club at Medical Lake High School.

Students in the club are building a robot to compete in the FIRST Robotics competition April 3 at Eastern Washington University. Their task is to build a robot that can perform one of two tasks. This year, students’ robots can either throw a Frisbee through different slots or climb a pyramid made of PVC pipes. Their creation can receive extra points if it can perform both tasks. Each year is never the same, with a different task being unveiled annually.

Medical Lake’s club is split into two departments: the hands-on and the business side of things. While some students are more technologically adept, others have design and marketing skills that help promote the club both in and outside of the school.

“We’re building a team that’s building a robot,” Ken Guidry said. “Building a robot is almost a distraction.”

Guidry is a computer programmer at EWU and Medical Lake resident who has two of his six children still attending Medical Lake High School. He approached the school about helping with a robotics club the same time as they received funding for it. A $1.3 million three-year Department of Defense grant the district received last year is providing funding for the club right now, in addition to other Science, Technology, Mathematics and Engineering (STEM) programs in the district.

“FIRST Robotics is excellent. It gives kids a great opportunity to work with real technology,” Guidry said.

The first year for any organization tends to have its bumps along the road, so Guidry is one of the many professionals lending expertise to help guide students along their journey. Another community member with programming expertise, Dennis Schweikhardt, has helped throughout the process.

There are requirements that students must meet when building the robot, including some price control measures, limiting the amount of money teams can spent per part and on the robot as a whole. There are basic programming structures available to start the project, but students and their mentors must work to make it perform as they wish.

High school teachers Bernie Polikowsky and Ryan Burtchett have been the driving force behind the club, working right along students during the club’s meeting times of Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, as well as Saturday sessions.

“Getting the robot to climb is going to be the big challenge,” Polikowsky said.

Students on the business portion of the club were drawn there from a variety of strengths: design, marketing, experience with Distributive Education Clubs of America (DECA) and other personal interests. Deadlines for shirts, competition paperwork and other elements are part of the business challenges the club faces.

Around four or five of the club’s members are freshmen. Having a large military student population like the one at Medical Lake can cause some difficulty, as some students relocate during the year, moving with their family to a new assignment. It creates a challenge to have a cohesive group remain intact from that first year all the way through their senior year.

“Hopefully we can hang on to some of them,” Polikowsky said.

Sponsors will provide the bulk of funding for the club once the grant money ends. That’s when the students’ talents will be put to a real test.

The skills learned during the numerous club meetings transfer directly into a professional job, Polikowsky said. The combination of both the business and engineering side of the club working together is just like a professional atmosphere. As a result, the students involved on the team have an advantage over other peers in some areas.

“In sports, you overcome challenges with your body,” Guidry said. “This is overcoming challenges with your mind.”

While many attend colleges on sports scholarships, the value of skills and networking opportunities involved in the robotics group can’t be understated. And advancing to a higher level of competition, that’s just the icing on the cake.

“Out of all of them, this is the one that will transfer into a career,” Guidry said.

James Eik can be reached at


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