‘More Than the Robot’

New Tech’s ThunderBots succeed at ‘coopertition’

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Photo of New Tech’s 2023-24 FIRST Robotics Club by Zach Straw

Robots may look like fun, but for New Tech Institute High School students, they facilitate leadership, responsibility, and community engagement.

Since 2018, around 70 students have participated in the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) Robotics Club at New Tech, 3013 N. First Ave. While learning to program and build robots, the ThunderBots – a moniker nodding to the thousands of P-47 Thunderbolt airplanes built by Evansville laborers during World War II – handle fundraising, grant applications, marketing, and hotel reservations when traveling for competitions.

Photo of Landon Fehrenbacher and Aluminum Falcon by Zach Straw

“The team is more than the robot,” says volunteer coach Michael Balich, who works for Dings’ Motion USA. Balich is stepping away after coaching for the last two years.

The 2023-24 team of 22 students met twice weekly during the school year to work on competition and outreach materials. There are off-season events, but the road to the national robotics championship starts when FIRST announces a theme each January. The ThunderBots then design and build a compatible robot within six weeks.

“They know more than I do,” Balich says.

During competitions, teams of three earn points by directing their robots to collect and place objects in a specific spot. They’re also evaluated based on FIRST’s values: discovery, innovation, impact, inclusion, teamwork, and fun. Teams express these values through gracious professionalism, which encourages fierce competition and respect, and “coopertition,” where they help each other by lending materials and knowledge.

Photo of ThunderBots with their 2024 Celebration of Leadership “Leader in Technology” Award provided by New Tech Institute High School

After the ThunderBots won the 2023 FIRST Indiana State Championship in Anderson, Indiana, students competed at the world championship in Houston, Texas, with a robot named after New Tech’s custodian, Betty.

“I like seeing how nice and friendly everyone is, plus meeting new people,” says Jaala Crowe, a freshman involved with marketing.

Teams also earn points for judges’ awards in creativity, technology, design, and sportsmanship. Aluminum Falcon, this year’s robot, secured the state-level creativity award.

The ThunderBots also help educate students at Tekoppel, Harper, and Hebron elementary schools, Joshua Academy, Lodge Community School, Perry Heights Middle School, and the CenterPoint Energy YMCA. The team’s robots also appear at New Tech’s STEM Fest, ShrinersFest, WNIN’s Kids Fest, and University of Evansville men’s basketball games.

New Tech’s robotics team – which won a Celebration of Leadership award this year from Leadership Everyone – is hardly the area’s only. North High School, Castle High School in Newburgh, Indiana, and Mount Vernon High School in Mount Vernon, Indiana, also boast FIRST clubs.

“We want to see everyone thrive together,” says Maguire Mosby, a junior and programming leader.

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Maggie Valenti joined Tucker Publishing Group in September 2022 as a staff writer. She graduated from Gettysburg College in 2020 with a bachelors degree in English. A Connecticut native, Maggie has ridden horses for 15 years and has hunt seat competition experience on the East Coast.