Coding is becoming an increasingly important part of modern life. For many, though, the practice can still be pretty intimidating. Sphero Maze Mayhem is the Waseca Public Library’s attempt to change that.
“I’m just hoping that they have fun and have something they can take away from this event, realizing coding isn’t as scary as it sounds,” said Afton Finley, organizer of the event.
Sphero Maze Mayhem, which took place Dec. 28, consisted of a maze made of blue painters tape in a back office of the library. The robots used, called Sphero robots — the SPRK+, to be exact — are meant to be driven from one opening of the maze and out the other. Controlled through an app on iPads provided by the library, the maze can be tackled manually by calibrating the spherical robot’s sense of direction by facing the light shining out of it in the direction of the user. The robot can then be steered and rolled through the maze.
The other way to control the robot — and the purpose of the event — is through code. By placing the spherical robot on the ground at the beginning of the maze, the coder is meant to input sequential data to make the robot move: for example, forward at a given speed for 1.7 seconds, before turning 90 degrees counterclockwise and moving forward at a slightly faster speed for 2.1 seconds.
Then it will turn 20 degrees clockwise, and so forth. The correct input sequence will get the robot from one end to the other.
A ‘part of everyday life’
According to Finley, the practice involves a lot of trial and error. It should also feel familiar — the kind of thinking to which most people are already accustomed.
“Coding is part of everyday life, even though we don’t really realize it,” she said. “Even though you’re not sitting at a computer figuring out the code, when you’re planning on going to the grocery store, what route are you taking? That’s part of computational thinking, which is part of coding.”
Leah Scheffert, a freshman at Waseca Junior/Senior High School, was the only visitor last week. She visited the event because she has an interest in coding, spurred in part by her father’s job involving coding. She’d also attended the event before, though she said the last time she attended the maze was much simpler.
Finley, who had not organized a Sphero coding event since summer 2019, attributed the participation of only a single person to other potential visitors being on vacation for winter break. Scheffert herself said many of her friends were on vacation.
However, the small group size meant Scheffert could focus more single-mindedly on making her Sphero’s rolling robot move through a maze made difficult by narrow passageways, sharp turns and an uneven carpet surface liable to throw the robot off its path.
Precision and patience
After about half an hour — the time Scheffert said it usually took her to code the robot to roll perfectly all the way to the end — she could get her robot through a couple long, narrow columns and past some odd turns, but there was one move neither she nor Finley couldn’t seem to accomplish. This was a series of turns back and forth between 10 and 90 degrees that led to an almost curved passage through to the other side. Eventually, Scheffert moved the tape to widen one particularly vexing opening.
Though there was much buzzing from the robots and words of frustration and triumph from Finley and Scheffert, most of the event took place in silence as the two of them made minor adjustments to code to get the last step of the sequence just right. Once this step was finished, the next move, controlled by a new line of code, could be worked on to get the Sphero that much closer to the end.
“If you don’t start it in the same exact spot every time, it can be a little off,” Finley said, explaining the difficulty in getting the robot to use the code’s exact instructions to get through the maze just right without hitting the walls. “Now I have to figure out a different speed and a different [duration for the robot to move].”
Ultimately, though, she said, the key to finally getting it in the end is patience.
“I feel like some of the things we’re doing here are life skills,” she went on. “Breaking things down into smaller parts, being patient when things aren’t working the way you think they would, and even that reward feeling when you finally get it finished.”
Aquatic invasive species never sleep. That means the county can’t, either.
The Waseca County Board of Commissioners adopted Dec. 21 the 2022 Waseca County Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) Prevention Plan, a necessary step for the county to receive AIS prevention aid from the state of Minnesota. In 2022, the county will receive $46,900, which will be added to its AIS account which currently has a balance of $200,000.
The $46,900 are to be used toward a number of different line items described in the proposed AIS budget put together by Haley Byron, water resources specialist in the planning and zoning department of Waseca County. Though her proposed budget totals $47,400, she assured commissioners her proposed budgets tend to be higher than what is actually spent — last year, for instance, only about $38,000 of a similarly-sized proposed budget were spent.
The 2022 proposed budget sets aside $15,000 to station watercraft inspectors at Reeds, St. Olaf, Elysian and Clear lakes. Ten-thousand dollars are also put aside for local government units, including lake associations and other groups that apply to do AIS work. The Waseca Lakes Association, for example, received $5,000 of the fund this year to treat 30 acres of curly-leaf pondweed in Clear Lake, and $3,800 were also set aside to treat 16 acres of Eurasian watermilfoil.
The proposed budget also sets aside money for social outreach, including $2,400 for radio advertising, to increase AIS awareness in the region. Last year, for instance, this advertisement played seven times a day on local public radio stations, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, from May through August:
“They’re not standing on the side of the road. They don’t even have a thumb. But yet they’re some of the most crafty and resourceful hitchhikers on the planet. Stop giving ‘em a free ride. Invasive species are a threat to lakes, river streams and habitats. Check your boat, check your equipment, dry it off and give aquatic hitchhikers a thumbs down. A message from Le Sueur, Waseca and Goodhue counties.”
Five-thousand dollars are also set aside for an organization called Minnesota Traditions, an organization created by the Mississippi Headwaters Board, which works to protect 400 miles of the Mississippi River within Minnesota’s borders. Minnesota Traditions raises AIS awareness by, among other things, producing high-quality videos and sharing them on social media. The group has a broad social reach — about 9 million target impressions on social media, according to Byron.
Throughout her presentation, Byron emphasized the importance of thinking regionally with a problem like AIS, recognizing a single city or county’s impact is limited by what surrounding regions are doing.
“When you spread the word in other parts of the state, that benefits us as people move around and recreate,” she said.
Byron also showed pictures of aquatic invasive species to the commissioners, including spiny waterfleas, which outcompete other zooplankton, but are too spiny themselves for fish to eat, leading fish to not grow as large where they are present.
Answering Commissioner Doug Christopherson’s question as to how these creatures get into Waseca County’s lakes, Byron said they stick on equipment and trailers and come up through tackle. This, and their small size, she said, is why people are required to drain their boat before they launch, among other precautionary measures.
Two weeks after hearing from constituents at the Truth in Taxation hearing, Waseca City Council adopted the 2022 levy at its Dec. 21 meeting.
The 2.5% levy increase puts the 2022 levy at $5.15 million, up from $5.03 million the previous year. It’s also a marked decrease from the preliminary 4.3% levy increase approved in September, an improvement for which Councilor Mark Christiansen thanked city staff.
Councilor Jeremy Conrath also made a point of revisiting his comments a few months prior when he said the final levy usually doesn’t end up much lower than the preliminary levy.
“I’ve got egg on my face,” he said.
The 2.5% levy increase means the median Waseca homeowner, the market value of whose home increased from $128,000 to $138,600 or by 8.11% in 2021, will see property taxes increase by 7.5%, from $933 to $1,003. For a Waseca homeowner whose home value was $138,600 and didn’t see a change in value in 2021, property taxes will go down 3.19%.
City Council voted unanimously to adopt the 2022 levy and the 2022 Economic Development Authority (EDA) levy. The council also voted to adopt with the 2022 annual city budget, with only Councilor John Mansfield opposing. Though he did not specifically explain his vote before taking it, Mansfield had been pushing for lower city taxes throughout discussions of the 2022 levy and taxes generally.
City Council also accepted the resignations of Blain Nelson and Mackenzie Hoy from the EDA.
In his resignation letter to the city, Nelson said his wife’s medical problems and appointments led him to have to resign from the subcommittee, effective Dec. 9.
“I will still be a terrific, positive cheerleader for Waseca,” he added. “Your prayers are appreciated.”
In her own resignation letter, Hoy explained that she and her husband were purchasing a home outside city limits, thus making her ineligible to serve on the EDA.
“My purpose and vision has always been to bring uplifting and vibrant energy wherever I go,” Hoy said. “I have been so blessed to be able to start my practice [Vibrant Family Chiropractic] in the community that I grew up in and have such success from the get-go … I know Waseca has a lot of people advocating for a bright future.”
Accepting their resignations, Mayor Roy Srp thanked Nelson and Hoy for their service on the EDA.
“We appreciate it, as we do all boards and commissions and volunteers that serve on those, so thank you,” he said. “You’ll both be missed.”
In addition to the two openings the resignations create on the EDA, Conrath said there were openings on the board of Discover Waseca Tourism.
Application deadlines for the openings on the EDA, as well as another opening on the Heritage Preservation Commission, are Friday, Jan. 7, said Mike Anderson, assistant to the city manager. He said the city is hoping to have those positions filled by second city council meeting in January, which will take place Tuesday, Jan. 18.
Dog park donation
City Council also accepted a $1,820 donation from Furry Friends of Waseca, the fundraising organization responsible for much of the advocacy that led to the council’s unanimous July 6 vote to convert the westernmost ball field at Memorial Park into the city’s first dog park. The donation will go toward the purchasing of dog waste stations, dog waste bags and a memorial bench for the Boyce Family.
“We’re not just stopping because it’s built,” said Christiansen, who represents the Waseca Park Advisory Board to the council. “There’s many more things we want done.”