Building life lessons and battle bots: Red Canyon High School’s robots ready to rumble

Red Canyon High School STEM teacher Blake Wiehe, top left, took his robotics and STEM class to a battle bot competition in Denver. Front left is Shane Vastine, top center is Jonah Wolansky and right is Ricky Caraveo.
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EFEC STEM grants

EFEC, the Education Foundation of Eagle County, announced $23,000 of STEM grants for 2017-18.

These schools are receiving funding:

• Eagle Valley Elementary School: Staffing to teach STEAM lessons to kindergarten and first grade four days a week.

• Gypsum Elementary School: Purchase a classroom set of ukuleles, as well as supplies for Eagle Valley High School woodworking class to design and build a mobile storage cart for the instruments.

• Avon Elementary School: Third grade students to participate in an art exchange with students in Ghana facilitating the school’s International Baccalaureate curriculum.

• Homestake Peak School: 3D printer for eighth-grade science to encourage active learning in the classroom.

• Berry Creek Middle School: Supplies for an on-campus sculpture garden to engage families.

• Eagle Valley High School: Industrial arts funding to repair a CNC machine and teacher training.

• Red Canyon High School: STEM CombatBot materials for robotics curriculum encouraging the opportunity for students to participate in regional, state and national robotics competitions.

• Exceptional Student Services: Funding to create transportable Maker Space STEM supplies, giving significant needs students across the district access to project-based learning; and money to purchase math resources for elementary and middle-school students who are learning at a rapid rate.

• Learning Services: In support of district-wide math program, Add+Vantage Math Recovery kits with in-depth teacher training in math teaching and content.

To learn more, visit

Sure, you might learn something from an academic, but you’ll learn about life by building and competing with your own battle bot — and you’ll have more fun.

Red Canyon High School’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) class built five battle bots, the only high school at a Denver maker fair competing against universities and professional geeks from engineering firms.

Red Canyon’s machine shop consisted of a set of metal shears, some metal screws, a $15 soldering iron, a couple of hammers and a drill press. Read: they had an electric drill and they pressed on it.

They built their battle bots from aluminum bleacher seats rescued from their school’s dumpster. Everything was adjustable with a hammer.

“Sometimes it was makeshift, but we made it work,” sophomore Jonah Wolansky said.

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BANG — The sound of learning

Red Canyon teachers Brian Wiehe and Christina Gosselin run the school’s program.

“Thank god she was with me, or it would have been too wild,” Wiehe said.

As it was, they had battle bot parts rolling around the lab, some more lethal than others. During one test, a bot vibrated so hard that the circular saw blade came off and rolled around the lab, which was actually really funny.

The hammering and drilling created such a ruckus that other Red Canyon teachers would occasionally stick their heads in and ask rhetorical questions such as, “Is everything alright?”

Of course it is. That racket of saws and hammers and drills is the sound of learning.

There were no PowerPoints in battle bot lessons, no worksheets and no droning lectures. This was science, technology, engineering and math as they were meant to be.

They learned wonderful stuff, such as:

Lock nuts are a great idea. So is super glue on your battle bot wheels.

“Small pieces always matter,” said Ricky Caraveo, a Red Canyon senior, explaining what life lessons they learned building battle bots.

Wiehe let them make some mistakes.

“You won’t always get it right the first time,” Caraveo said. “You’re going to make mistakes. It’s like the ‘Mythbusters’ guys say, ‘There is data in failure.’ We learned to make something better.”

Red Canyon’s battle bot project is based on five steps of the science:

• Identify

• Explore

• Design

• Create

• Improve

From there, they created their Pool of Possibilities: three ideas for the chassis, three ideas for the weapon, three ideas for the controllers.

Less-plausible ideas fell by the wayside. More plausible ideas moved forward.

“After you design and build it, you really do have to improve it,” Caraveo said.

Robots work much the same as humans, Wiehe said. Like you, every robot is built with receivers, controllers and actuators. You receive input, you process it, and your parts act on it.

New guy

The first quarter of the 2017-18 semester was also Wiehe’s first quarter as a teacher. He graduated the University of Colorado’s engineering school but wasn’t thrilled about working in an engineering firm. So he knocked around South America and other spots for a while.

Eventually, though, he settled down and looked for a job. While he was searching, he kept tutoring, something he had been doing since he was a junior in high school.

One day, a former physics student sent him a message: “Thanks for the help in physics. Yes, I hated it, but now I appreciate it. I think you should become a teacher.”

So he did.

“I knew I wanted to be a teacher, but down the road,” Wiehe said.

He met Geoff Grimmer and Wade Hill at a job fair and learned about the alternative licensing program, which shortened his road to a teaching career, and they plugged him into Red Canyon’s program.

Stressful and wonderful

“Battle Bots” started back in the early 1990s as a TV sensation. Basically, two robots equipped with all sorts of weaponry battle to the death.

There’s still a battle bot TV show and leagues. You can compete just about any weekend. You cannot make a living at it, yet, like you can at Frisbee golf or slacklining, but it’s fun.

Red Canyon competed in the beetle division, which has a three-pound weight limit. Divisions for this competition went up to bots weighing 30 pounds. The biggest ones on TV can weigh 150 pounds.

In Denver, two Red Canyon bots were eliminated by the two bots that squared off for the championship. Wolansky finished in the top six.

The tables were 100 feet long, crammed with all manner of gear, parts and panicked people.

“The pits were so stressful. There was noise everywhere and people doing everything all the time. I loved it,” Wolansky said.

The guy who won their division was given a bunch of tools and other building material, but because he already has all that, he offered the whole package to Wiehe’s class. It’s already in their lab, helping give life to just about anything they can imagine.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or

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