Some do it because they like to tinker, some do it for the competition and others do it to be around friends with a common goal. 

One thing they can all agree on is the real-world engineering experience they are receiving while a part of the the Dunlap Eagles Robotics Team.




Some do it because they like to tinker, some do it for the competition and others do it to be around friends with a common goal. 

One thing they can all agree on is the real-world engineering experience they are receiving while a part of the the Dunlap Eagles Robotics Team.

“We’re trying to give them leadership skills and build an interest in science and technology and mathematics,” said Gordon Mills, DERT coordinator.

Established in 2005, DERT began as a group effort with the Peoria Heights High School robotics team as they built a robot for the regional FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) competition at Purdue University.

After seeing how much his students enjoyed it, Mills and a school board member approached the school board with the possibility of making it a club at DHS.

Switching from a collaborative effort to one squarely on Mills’ and other volunteers’ shoulders, was not easy.

“It was a big change,” Mills said. “When we became our own team, there were a lot of logistics — fundraising and coordination of all of the teams.”

On the surface it may seem like all DERT does is produce robots, but the club is more than that.

There are two mechanical robotics teams, one electrical team, an IT and website design team, an animation team, a 3D modeling team and a public relations team.

“Pretty much the whole team is run like a company with different departments,” Mills said. “They each have to kind of fulfill their responsibility to be successful.”



While their big competition at Purdue isn’t until March, DERT is currently preparing for the local VEX robot competition Dec. 18. This small-scale robot competition is for Peoria-area schools.

“The idea is to give them practice and experience and problem solving to figure this out and what the robots can do on the small scale,” Mills said. “If we’re going to make mistakes, let’s make them on the small (robots) because we can fix those easily.”

“They’re learning to work as a team,” Mills said. “They’re learning different aspects of different robots and what to expect of them, how to program them and things like that.”

The local showcase will most likely feature two robots from each team. Mills said this gives more people a chance to get involved that normally would not. This year the team has around 35 students on its roster.

The competition itself is run like any other athletic event. First, because schools take more than one robot team, they are split up and paired with robots from other schools. For instance, one robot from Dunlap could be teamed with a robot from Richwoods.

The idea of the competition is to complete certain tasks using the robots and work as a team.

One such task has a robot lift plastic doughnuts and put them on a post, while another aspect is to get a robot to lift itself off the ground by climbing a ladder. Points are given to teams for completing different tasks.

“(Students) had to get together and decide, ‘Do we want (the robot) to focus on picking up rings, do we want it to just be able to lift itself up or do we want a defensive one that can get in the way of everyone else and keep them from scoring?’” Mills said. “Once they decided that, they had to decide how they were going to get it to work.”


Valuable mentorship

In addition to leadership, Mills said it is also about forging relationships with professional engineers in the area that can help guide the students in the competition and in possible future professions.

“We are also giving them contacts both at (Dell Services and Engineering Solutions) and Caterpillar,” Mills said. “They’re developing contacts with them, seeing what a real engineer is like, not just reading it out of a book.”

FIRST founded the robotics competition to show students that engineering can be fun, and not just about an engineer always being stuck behind a desk, Mills said.

Tom Staley, a mentor from Dell Services and Engineering Solutions, said he has been a mentor at DHS for a few years and loves it. He said they are there to help guide the students, but above anything else, he wants them to have fun.

“There’s no point in doing anything if you aren’t having fun and if they learn something along the way, then all the better,” Staley said. 

Mills and Staley said it is important that the students know they make all of the decisions and the mentors are there just to answer questions if need be.

“I know enough to stop them and ask questions to make them think,” Staley said. “That’s the idea, to get them to think and solve their own problems.”

DHS junior Kyle Ernst has been a member of DERT since his freshman year. He said he has always enjoyed tinkering and doing things with his hands, so this group was perfect for him.

“It’s just a fun experience for me — just the whole experience building the robot and hanging out with friends. We have a lot of enthusiasm at the competitions, so it’s a lot of fun,” Ernst said.

Ernst, the mechanical lead for DERT, said he appreciates having engineering mentors there to help the students. While he is not going into this specific field of engineering, he feels it is a great advantage for those who are.


FIRST things first

The regional competition at Purdue University is March 17-19, for which DERT is always preparing. While they take a couple of robots to the VEX competition, they only take one robot to the FIRST competition where the rules, field of play, and number of teams differs drastically.

“You’re building a large-scale robot competing on a field the size of a basketball court,” Mills said. “You’re dealing with teams from different states in the area as well as different countries — some teams from Israel and other places as well.”

Mills said besides a basic frame of the robot they receive from FIRST, everything else is built from scratch by each team. The rules aren’t too strict but teams can’t have anything specially created just for them.

Upon arrival in Lafayette, Ind., teams first compete in a series of seeding matches. Those lead to a ranking of every team, then the highest seeded teams choose their partners for the main competition. 

As per the competition rules, DERT does not yet know what the robot’s tasks are going to be.

“They let us know in January, then we have six weeks to build,” Mills said.

 Just as VEX robots serve certain roles in the game, FIRST robots are built to play a role in a game where teams are paired and must work together.

It starts with the public relations team, which has to know the ins and outs of the robot. They will spend their time in the team’s designated pit area trying to drum up interest in DERT’s product. When teams come looking for alliances after the seeding matches, the PR team has its work cut out for it trying to recruit partners.

They also have a team in the stands scouting other robots, noting their strengths and weaknesses. This comes in handy when they are looking for partners to see how they can work well together, but also against the competition to know how to exploit the other teams.


Future funding

While Dell, Infotech and other engineering companies help sponsor the team, Mills said it is not nearly enough to cover everything.

“(Dell) takes care of a good part of our costs with the team registration and basic robot parts and kits — anything we might need,” Mills said. “Even with all of that, we are still working on fundraising throughout the year.”

Even though the team is in its sixth year of existence, Mills said they are still trying to figure out the best way to make sure the group continues, so future engineers can take advantage of everything DERT has to offer.

Mills said they are teaching the project leaders to mentor the younger students, and to get them involved as much as possible.

“(We’re) trying to get team leads to train (the younger students), so when the leads are gone, we have good leaders ready to take their place.”