Mark Clairmont |

GRAVENHURST — “Hal, we have a problem.”

“We don’t have a flat-bed truck to float you in the Santa Claus Parade Saturday?”

“No problem, we’ll build one. We have the technology.”

That’s the real and theoretical thinking behind the robotics club at Gravenhurst High School.

Ambitious teens with the inventive minds of Elon Musk and enough STEM cells to take pieces of plastic and metal and a build a brain that will drive a robot down Muskoka Road.

It’s learning and problem-solving on the run.

For these are no ordinary student bots.

There’s about two dozen of them who meet after school, before school, during school, creating, building and troubleshooting problems real and perceived.

Like the float and team co-captains Hayden Foley and Tyler Shepherd.

Shepherd: “Someone else needs the float we had planned.”

Foley: “No problem, we’ll figure it out.”

For most parade participants, the loss of wheels days before steering Santa down main street would be like Rudolph’s red nose going out.

Not for these smart, young men and women who meet in a new small classroom tucked down next to the tech shop and beside where the Empty Bowls were molded, turned, painted and sold at a recent super charity soup supper.

They are the drivers behind this thee-year-old club, which has evolved into two high school courses — one for Grade 11-12 students and the other a six-week part of the tech classes rotation for Grade 9 students.

They’re taught coding, electronics and advanced computer-engineering skills. Their new class (#Room 136) even has a new drill press this year to go along with a saw to cut metal. Four computers have just been moved in.

But the club, which participants consider as extra-curricular “team” and separate from their regular educational responsibilities, is fun and a bit more intense in terms of competition.

It’s that competitive drive that is propelling the GHS students, who now with two years of that gamesmanship spirit to whet their circuits, they’re back to defend their winning ways from 2018.

Foley, 17, a Grade 12 student and Shepherd, a Grade 12 grad who is back for a victory lap, are leading the team this season.

With the help of teacher Iggi vanKooten and a couple of adult volunteers including former teacher Linda Hachmer (whose son helped start the nine-member club in 2017) the team is working on this year’s competition.

Principal Trent Willet is very encouraged, dropping in to watch progress this week.

Last year in Barrie at the FIRST Robotics (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) “Deep Space” competition, GHS placed first as part of three schools that were part of a team competition to win in their classification.

The rode to victory with “Hal,” the club’s second robotic iteration, which was proceeded by “Mike” two years ago in their first foray into building and competing.

Foley, who began with Lego as a kid and tinkering with his mother’s paper shredder, is the team’s student tech co-ordinator.

He said his mother knew he was going to be an engineer, a career path he’s headed for now.

Shepherd is the fundraising co-ordinator and the club has changed her life. She was headed toward medical studies but now says she will major in bio-med that lets her do robotitcs and medicine.

“She’s better at that than I am,” said Foley. “I like the other stuff.”

Shepherd is good at not just the robotics, but bringing it all together so the team of equal parts males and females can get to the competition.

Their goal is $29,000, which includes building the as-yet-unnamed third generation robot, paying for at least two, if not three competitions (food and accommodation for two days) if they advance, which they expect to.

On Jan. 4 GHS will get its marching and building orders. And they will learn what this year’s theme is and what they will have to do to defend their championship.

With 3,647 teams from 28 countries competing around the world in regional finals, it’s going to be tough, again. There are 250 clubs in Canada, including their parent club in Huntsville and at BMLSS in Bracebridge. There are 3,000 teams in the U.S.

Last year the GHS “Team #6864 competed in round-robin play that involved something like a basketball game, where they had to race 125-pound Hal against other teams. And using pulleys and lifts, fire a projectile through a series of hole like hoops.

It was a lot of fun and learning.

And it took a lot of patience and trouble-shooting when the inevitable goes wrong.

Thinking on the fly, learning to make do and improvising are skills they’re use to now.

Foley calls it “co-oper-ition.”

That’s because not only is it teamwork, but it’s cooperation among all the teams that root and cheer for one another.

It’s in that spirit that friendly teams routinely share information and tips and even offer spare parts to help them stay in the game.

GHS has had short-term electrical problems benefited from that from a Toronto team.

Same when Hal’s camera lost sight.

But they got through it and as of the new year they will have 10 intense weeks to build from scratch the next Mike and Hal.

It means working between classes during the day and late into the evening.

And to help, Shepherd has come up with the “$100 x 100” challenge for their team.

The goal is to get 100 donors to contribute.

They’ve already received other donations, including $1,000 from IBM, which will match a portion of what employees or retirees donate to team. A number of local people and service clubs like Rotary and Lions have also stepped up to donate.

Call the school at 705-687-2283.

And attend the parade Saturday to see how they’ll get Hal moving ahead of Santa.

See photo and videos below of the club, Hayden, Tyler and first-year club member Thomas Dagastini.

Teacher Iggi vanKooten, back left, gives the thumbs up with the GHS Robotics Club team as they ready for the 2020 FIRST Robotics Competition.

Email Mark Clairmont at


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