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March 14, 2014
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Douglas County's Absentminded Geniuses focus on building dutiful robot

GLIDE — Joshua Friedlein scowled with concentration as his team’s robot employed gears and levers to raise a flag.

Friedlein, 17, of Winston and his teammates, Brandon Ewens, 16, of Winston and Zach Koontz, 18, and Elijah Hawkins, 18, both of Glide, are the The Absentminded Geniuses.

They compete in FIRST Tech Challenge, a program in which students design and build robots programmed to raise flags, find objects, pick up balls and finish with a pull-up.

They won the Inspire Award, the top prize, at a regional competition in February at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland and will compete next week in the Super Regional Championship in Sacramento.

About 900 teams across 14 states competed in state championships and 72 teams advanced to Sacramento.

“It was really cool,” Koontz said. “We’ve been working toward that for a long time.”

The team’s goal is to be one of about 20 teams to advance from Sacramento to the World Festival in St. Louis in April.

“If we do advance, it would be amazing,” Friedlein said.

The team also won the Connect Award for reaching out to the community. The team helps with a Glide church dinner, hosted a robotic tournament, tutors students in physics and spreads the word about the program.

Coach Linda Koontz, Zach’s mother, said she has watched the boys learn and grow through her six years of coaching.

“They studied gears and gear ratios and used math and science to compete. It makes it part of school and applied science,” she said.

Zach Koontz started the club six years ago when he joined the First Lego League, a division of 4-H.

He recruited friends who had similar interests, and the team began.

“4-H has an incredible science program, but most people don’t know about it,” Linda Koontz said.

In competitions, four teams direct robots to perform tasks in a square 12 feet by 12 feet.

Rules restrict the materials students can use to manufacture robots.

“They have very limited resources, which forces them to engineer,” Linda Koontz said.

The team has worked on this year’s robot since September. It cost between $1,500 and $2,000 to build, she said.

They received a $2,000 grant from the Ben Serafin Fund, which is named after and honors a longtime Glide resident.

“It’s a lot of trial and error and working together to attack it until we figure it out,” Zach Koontz said.

This is the last year for the three older boys.

Friedlein and Koontz are home-schooled students. Hawkins is also home-schooled and also takes classes part time at Glide High School. Ewens is a sophomore at Umpqua Valley Christian School.

Friedlein said he enjoys the competition and the team atmosphere.

“It creates camaraderie. It’s a sport for the mind,” he said. “It’s the hardest fun you’ve ever had.”

Friedlein said he is unsure of his plans, but is looking into internships through the FTC program.

Zach Koontz said he will miss the camaraderie of the team.

“I like working with a team and solving problems,” he said. “I like constantly having people out here working on the robot and putting my brain to the test.”

He plans to attend George Fox University in the fall and study engineering.

Hawkins plans to study engineering in college, likely at the Oregon Institute of Technology.

He credited Linda Koontz with keeping the team together.

“She changed our perspective and our career goals,” she said.

Ewens said he hopes to find a new team to compete with next year.

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The News-Review Updated Mar 17, 2014 06:42PM Published Mar 14, 2014 09:52AM Copyright 2014 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.