By Larry Persily

Skagway’s Prickles FIRST Tech Challenge robotics team will be going to the state tournament Feb. 7-8 in Palmer. But first, they need to work on their arm.

Not the arm of any of the six team members. It’s their robot’s mechanical arm that needs some work.

The robot’s mission at the Southeast regional qualifier competition Dec. 7 in Juneau was to pick up and stack up what look like giant LEGO blocks, each about half a foot in length, explained coach Andy Miller.

“Our robot was really fast” at corralling the blocks, Miller said. The robot has a great gripper but its arm was not working so well in Juneau, so it pushed the blocks together but could not lift and stack them, Miller said Dec. 30.

“Apparently, we did well enough to reach second” in the matches and a trip to state, said Miller, who coaches the team with his wife, Mindy. “I am completely impressed.”

It was the team’s rookie year. “The FIRST Tech Challenge hasn’t been in Skagway for about a decade and a few determined students decided to bring it back,” said team member Chloe Miller. The students figured this would be a learning year. “Little did we know that we would make it to state,” Chloe said.

The Prickles were up against veteran teams from Southeast communities who wore T-shirts covered with their sponsors’ logos. “It looked like NASCAR a little bit,” Andy Miller said.

More important than the T-shirts is the robot, which cannot be larger than 18 inches by 18 inches by 18 inches, constructed of wood, metal, plastic — “any material you want to use,” Andy Miller said.

“We struggled at the beginning of the season with programming,” Chloe said. “After watching several YouTube videos and messing around with our programming application, FTC Blocks, we were able to make our robot move.”

In addition to Chloe, team members, who range from seventh grade to high school sophomores, are Conner Lawrence, Adalia and Charles Deach, Callia Fielding, and Calvin Miller.

The Skagway School board in August approved a $2,000 appropriation to help start the team, which is run independently of the school. The team now needs to raise money for travel to state.

“The greatest challenge Skagway FTC robotics face is fundraising for getting to state, as well as expanding the program to have more teams in Skagway,” Chloe said.

Though new to the FTC competition, all of the Skagway team members are veterans who aged out of the FIRST LEGO League (FLL), which is for younger students. The FLL Krosswalk Kangaroos also earned a spot at state competition, set for Jan. 18 in Anchorage. The team won the overall champion’s choice at the Juneau Jamboree Dec. 14.

FTC is a worldwide program, almost 20 years old, with a world championship and college scholarships available.

“Between now and February, we’re really working with our arm,” Andy Miller said.