Robotics had a big year in Albany in 2002. West Albany High School started its own robotics team, Watson, and Robin Hobbensiefken moved to Albany from Portland.
Seventeen years later, Watson no longer exists, South Albany’s Phantom robotics team also has disbanded, and Hobbensiefken now leads a mash-up of the teams with kids from both schools under a new moniker: SWARM.
“I was volunteering in other groups in the city and this seemed like a much more effective use of my volunteer time,” said Hobbensiefken, a software engineer.
The Lyons native got involved with SWARM when his daughter, Willow, was in the fifth grade. She joined her elementary school FIRST LEGO league, where her dad became a mentor. After she graduated to middle school, her younger brother, River, got involved, keeping Hobbensiefken in the LEGO robotic and mentoring business and eventually sending him to the high school level and SWARM, where he acts as head mentor.
SWARM, which formed in 2010, teaches teenagers math and engineering fundamentals, teamwork and planning. Every year, teams compete to build a robot that will obey commands and complete tasks set by the FIRST Robotics organization. In elementary school, the robots are constructed with LEGOs.
Hobbensiefken’s son, whom he started mentoring in elementary school, is now a senior. But on Thursday last week, Hobbensiefken was preparing to load up a van, his students and their robot to head to Lake Oswego for a regional competition. They’ll compete in their district, Pacific Northwest, and if they win, they'll go on to the Pacific Northwest Championships in Tacoma, Wash. After that, it’s the world championships and competition from the best of 3,500 registered teams in Houston, Texas.
And it took a lot more than the coaching of 12 mentors and Hobbensiefken to make it to this point. It took exactly $10,000 more. The team’s robot cost $5,500 this year in parts alone and the registration fee for the competition mounted $3,000. Local sponsors pitched in but Hobbensiefken said the team still had to come up with funds for things like tape and drill bits.
It also took patience. Hobbensiefken said the most challenging part of coaching 30 teens from eighth- to 12th-grade is the wide range of interests even in such a niche group. He said some teens show up ready to work during a competition season that will see the team practice six days a week. Others are less motivated.
“It’s about finding the right things for them to work on,” he said.
The group will celebrate its 10th anniversary of combining the Phantoms and Watson next year. Hobbensiefken hasn’t thought that far ahead but said for now, he plans to keep mentoring his SWARM team with his mentoring partner, Eric Shilling.
So why does Hobbensiefken keep showing up six days a week to the little red building behind the downtown Ciddici's Pizza that the team calls "The Hive," to coach kids in mathematics and engineering for free?
“That’s a good question,” he said. “The best part is watching them learn and seeing the look on their faces when the robot is doing what we designed it to do. It’s fun.”