March 2024 – Harrisburg, OR

“So we made history last night and beat the unbeatable team: 324 to 315 with our highest score of the season,” said Harrisburg science teacher and robotics instructor, DJ (Doug) Ellis, “I’m really proud of these kids.”

The budding robotics teams in Harrisburg are made up of advisor, Ellis, and eight students (four of which were in the champion team), consisting of sophomores and juniors. They have a lot to be proud of.

Both teams, the Metal Heads and the Code Breakers, competed at the state level in Hillsboro, Oregon. This event is an exciting accomplishment for any competing team, but it is exceptionally exciting when it is your first year competing. Even more thrilling is that one of the two Harrisburg teams left the event as state champions. The league Harrisburg is competing in is called First Tech Challenge (FTC) which is a division of First Inspires.

This wasn’t at all a cake walk though. Ellis recounts how the afternoon of the competition played out: “Unfortunately, we made two student-player errors that cost us the next two rounds. We dropped to 8th place. Fortunately for us, with a little bit of luck and teams not fully understanding how strong we were, we were selected as a third-choice alliance in the elimination round.”

This newfound alliance at the competition following their brief adversity is part of what carried Harrisburg to success.

The students’ well-honed teamwork and strategizing skills were what got them noticed at the competition in the first place. The challenge rounds required all four team members to work in a synchronized and harmonious way. Two students drive and operate the robot’s wheels and extremities, one student acts as a director of the team, and the fourth team member is the human player component with their role being away from the other three and on the playing field.

The competition is based on completing tasks with the robot. Moving playing pieces called pixels and using the pixels and the robot to create mosaics are among some of the assignments given during these timed competitions.

Taking first place is truly exceptional, especially considering this was the team’s first state competition, eliciting a true moment of nerves and nirvana for a small new team proving they have what it takes. Now they’re looking to expand the team for next season, both in skills and diversity.

“This season the students were more compartmentalized, working only on only coding, or only building. Next year I’ll be having the students get comfortable with more than one skill so we can have more collaboration amongst the team on all aspects of the robotics process,” said Ellis about restructuring the creation process so students will get a more holistic robotics experience in the coming season.

This is not Ellis’ first rodeo in the robotics space. Five years ago, Ellis started a LEGO robotics program at his school. “The problem was that there were no opportunities for competitive LEGO robotics.” Ellis knew his students would enjoy a competitive aspect to their robotics experience. “I just wanted them to be inspired and engaged,” said Ellis.

So Ellis worked on developing a curriculum that would get his students to competitive spaces like First Inspires. To do so, he knew he needed more advanced equipment. Expensive equipment. That’s where MVSCH comes in.

“I could have afforded some of the parts needed for competition but there were important pieces that I couldn’t afford,” said Ellis.

In 2023, the Mid-Valley STEM-CTE Hub (MVSCH) awarded a $14k grant to the Harrisburg High School robotics program via the Governor’s Computer Science Emergency Education Relief (CS GEER fund) to get the ball rolling. Without the funds, Ellis’ robotics teams would not have had access to the seed money needed to form their champion robotics team.

“I’m thrilled to see Harrisburg High School make such good use of the funding we were able to provide them. It’s exciting to see one of our region’s smallest schools have such a successful first-year robotics team,” said Chris Singer, the program coordinator responsible for classroom outreach at MVSCH.

In their off-season, Ellis and his team are building sample robots, scrimmaging, and doing outreach to the local middle school and schools in neighboring towns.

“I’m hoping to expand the program next season to include freshmen,” said Ellis, “maybe even to middle school students in the future.”

Keep an eye out in the fall when we catch up again with Ellis and his robotics students as they prepare for their second season of competition.



Photo taken from Harrisburg School District’s Website.