He started with Legos. Now he builds robots competitively.

Student of the week-Eli Tiemann

Student of the week: Belleville West senior Eli Tiemann founded the first robotics team at West last year.
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Student of the week: Belleville West senior Eli Tiemann founded the first robotics team at West last year.

Eli Tiemann has loved building things since he was putting together Lego sets as a child. Now, the 17-year-old is building something more complicated — robots.

Eli brought the first competitive robotics team to Belleville West High School last year. But it’s the third team he’s competed with; Eli has been entering robotics competitions since he was in eighth-grade.

“We had no clue what we were doing,” he said of his first competition. He’s more confident now, but said he still gets nervous.

“I’m just always worried something’s going to go wrong with our robot because that’s the absolute worst thing that can happen,” Eli said. “With the experience that I have now, that’s usually minimized. We usually do fairly well. It’s just that initial spike of nerves when you go to your first match of the day and it stops for half a second and you don’t know if that’s because a wire broke or a fuse blew or a gear is stuck on something.”

The Belleville West team enters competitions through the not-for-profit group For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. Right now, the team is getting ready for a Nov. 12 competition in Edwardsville. Their goal is to build a robot that can pick up Wiffle ball-sized balls and throw them into a 5-foot tall hoop.

Teams will compete two-on-two, with a pair of robots working in an alliance to meet the challenge before the other pair, in 150-second matches.

Eli said he’s competitive, but the matches aren’t his favorite part of the process.

“I enjoy the creativity more because it’s a lot nicer to see your ideas put together, for me at least, than to see them destroy someone else’s ideas that they put together,” he said.

Eli hopes to study mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology so he can make a career out of building robots. He doesn’t have a preference for what kind he’ll build — “as long as they’re cool,” Eli said.

I’ve always loved Legos as a kid. Whenever I got a set, I would build it that night. I’d just stop everything and stay up as late as I had to, to build that set.

Eli Tiemann

In addition to his knack for robotics, Eli has a perfect 5.0 GPA and is ranked No. 1 in his class, according to Principal Rich Mertens. Eli especially enjoys physics and math, he said, but other high schoolers who have trouble in those subjects can still be a part of Belleville West’s robotics team.

“Ultimately, we’re looking for ideas. You don’t need to know how to take the derivative of an expression or know every single part of physics to be able to go, ‘If we put this together and this together, we might get this,’” Eli said. “I don’t want people to think they have to do all that crazy science and math because that discourages people from joining something they otherwise might enjoy.”

The robotics team meets on Mondays and Wednesdays after school in room B312.

Q: How did you get the idea to start a robotics team?

A: “ABLE, which is Association for Bright Learners’ Education, does this summer program at SWIC (Southwestern Illinois College) where they teach classes for kids. It’s a wide range. There’s like foreign language classes, science classes and robotics classes. The first two robotics classes are really simple; you just build a robotic kit. But in the last one, you get a kit of parts and you get to design your own robot for that. And after that weeklong course, the instructor thought that I had a lot of potential and she invited me to join her team.”

Q: How did you first get interested in building things?

A: “I’ve always loved Legos as a kid. Whenever I got a set, I would build it that night. I’d just stop everything and stay up as late as I had to, to build that set. ... In fifth-grade, I had the opportunity to go to the first class at that Kids on Campus (through ABLE and SWIC) — just the really basic one — and that one was more putting things together through a kit, which was kind of a stretch between Legos and robotics. And then after that, it grew to building things from my mind.”

Q: How do you get started building a robot now?

A: “There’s no real way to get started, but the accepted way is you come up with a concrete design first and then you build it. But I just like putting pieces together, see what sticks and see what doesn’t and go from there. Last year, one of our team members said, ‘It’s trial and error, just minus the trial.’”

Q: How many members did you start out with and how many do you have now?

A: “There was a huge spike this year. Last year, we had, I think, eight people max. It usually averaged about six or seven showing up. And now, we’ve at least doubled. I think we’re at 16.”

Q: Do you enjoy the competitive aspect of the robotics team?

A: “I have a very competitive spirit. I like competing with my friends and trying to be the best.”

Q: Is it a pretty big rivalry?

A: “A big thing with FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is called ‘gracious professionalism.’ Basically, that means you’re competitors but you’re also friends. If someone’s robot breaks, you’re not supposed to go, ‘Yeah! One more person out.’ You’re supposed to do whatever you can to get the robot back into the game because ultimately, it’s about having fun and learning and not just winning. We view each other as resources we can use to ask questions, bounce ideas off of and work together.

Q: Your next competition is on Nov. 12. What do you have left to do to prepare?

A: “We have to finish building the robot, which sounds like a lot, but now that we’ve had a chance to redesign it, we know where a lot of the things are going to go.”

Q: What do you want to do for a career?

A: “I want to do something with robots. I don’t know what that’s going to be yet. Hopefully I make a lot of money doing it.”

Q: What advice do you have for other students who aren’t No. 1 in their class?

A: “Work hard and pay attention in class. Paying attention in class is the biggest thing. For me, I retain information fairly easily. I don’t have to study a whole lot. But if I’m not paying attention to something in class, I don’t know anything about it.”

Lexi Cortes: 618-239-2528, @lexicortes

Meet Eli Tiemann

  • Age: 17
  • School: Belleville West High School
  • College he’s considering: MIT
  • Parents: Kim and Scott
  • Siblings: Savannah, 16
  • Pets: A Pug-Beagle mix; a Schnauzer-Yorkie mix; and an African house snake
  • School activities: Robotics Team; Science Olympiad; Scholar Bowl; German Club; Math Team; National Honor Society
  • Hobbies: Boy Scouts and the Order of the Arrow; playing video games
  • Role model: Dad
  • Favorite subjects in school: All
  • Least favorite subjects in school: None
  • Favorite music: Billy Joel
  • Favorite food: Mac and cheese
  • Favorite restaurants: Red Lobster and Lotawata Creek