When the robotics team at Middleton High School formed in 2004, it had just 15 students.
Nine years later, with a litany of titles under its belt — including a 2012 world championship — a robotics dynasty has taken shape.
"When we go to competitions, they don't like to see us coming," said Kathy Freriks, the program's magnet lead teacher.
Middleton's Robotics Club has grown to more than 80 students. Teacher Scott Mead says he can't keep kids away. "Now we have to limit the number of kids that can compete on teams," he said. "It's harder to get on a Middleton robotics team."
And Middleton doesn't just have one robotics team. It has six in three categories.
The school's most successful effort to date was the Masquerade FTC, or First Tech Challenge, team in 2012. Senior Jason Howard, this year's club president, was captain of that team, which won a competition that began with more than 2,500 teams, with the top 128 attending the world championships in St. Louis, Mo.
Freriks described the task the FTC robots faced in competition.
"They had to pick up baskets and place racquetball-sized balls into the baskets and they scored more points for how high they could raise the baskets," Freriks said. "What our team could do that no one else could do was pick up a lot of baskets. We picked up four baskets, no one else (picked up as many)."
FTC is one of the three categories that FIRST, or For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, has for its national and international contests. FIRST is a nonprofit based in Manchester, N.H., that "designs accessible, innovative programs that motivate young people to pursue education and career opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math, while building self-confidence, knowledge, and life skills," according to its website.
As the field of competitors expanded nationally and internationally, so did the categories. FTC was created to supplement the original competition design called FRC, or First Robotic Challenge. FRC uses a larger playing field and typically warrants larger robot designs. Middleton's FRC robot last year shot Frisbees and competed on a course the size of a basketball court.
The FTC field is just 12 square feet; to qualify, the robot must be able to fit into an 18-inch cube.
The third category is VEX, which is a robotics competition not under the FIRST umbrella. Competitors use the same field as the FTC, but the games or tasks are different.
Of Middleton's six robotics teams, two are VEX, one is FRC and three are FTC.
Middleton robotics students also participate in a program developed by MIT called Zero Robotics, where students design SPHERES, or Synchronized Position Hold Engage and Reorient Experimental Satellites. Mead said the students have a chance to write programs for robotic satellites used on the International Space Station.
With the school year well under way, robotics season is in full swing at Middleton. FTC members received their "game" a few weeks ago and are hard at work, while FRC members await their game, to be unveiled next month. Competition heats up in December when the Middleton Madness competition is held, serving as a warmup for the local, regional, national, and international competitions that begin in January.
Andy Warrener can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.