Lettering in robotics?

High school league endorses new program

New robotics program becomes third non-athletic competitive activity for Minnesota schools

By Brigid Kelly, Talon staff writer

Six weeks. One challenge. One championship competition. And a varsity letter.

The Minnesota State Fair brought more than deep-fried candy bars and corn-on-the-cob to local high school students this year. On STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Day at the Fair, Dave Stead, executive director of the Minnesota State High School League, announced that Minnesota would be the first state in the nation to recognize building robots as an intellectual varsity sport.

The FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics program sought out a partnership with the MSHSL prior to the August announcement. It will be the third non-athletic activity to earn official status in Minnesota.

With 130 robotics teams in the state already, the competition will not be new for many Minnesota schools, but the “letter” incentive will be a new twist.

It seems as if it’s time for Minnehaha’s development in the field of robotics to speed up and catch up, but its growth lies entirely with finding student interest, intellect, determination and faculty support.

Catching up to the attraction of Robotics may greatly benefit Minnehaha students. The MSHSL sponsored FIRST Robotics program offers a new outlet for students to pursue leadership, teamwork, cooperation and a substantial leg-up on the competition going into college and the real world.

“Schools [often] start teams because it makes their students more competitive on college applications,” said FIRST Assistant Regional Director, Ken Rosen. “It’s a unique activity. It may interest students who are not currently participating in any other school-based extracurricular activity.”

FIRST offers nearly 15 million dollars in college scholarships along with unparalleled experience in the fields of engineering and science.

But what is it really?

The goal of the FIRST Robotics Competition is to inspire high school students to follow career paths in science and technology. But more than that, it’s preparing the youth population of 2011 for a future without boundaries.

“It’s a very challenging, but very fun experience in which teams build big, sophisticated robots, three to five feet tall and up to 120 pounds, that compete in big arenas,” explained Rosen.

Teams meet in January for FIRST’s national kickoff. At this event, FIRST reveals the annually changing game designed by FIRST founder, Dean Kamen. Using a common set of rules and a standard “kit of parts”, students prepare to compete with other teams from various states and countries.

Teams and their mentors  – teachers or community members with engineering backgrounds that tutor students on software tools and technical mechanics – then set to work. They have just over six weeks to design, build, and practice with their robots in preparation for competition.

Every year, the games are played on fields that are about two-thirds the size of a basketball court. Each competition round typically lasts about two minutes as three-team alliances compete against one another.

With fans, referees and judges overseeing every competition, the FIRST Robotics Competition is more than just a game of points. Teams are awarded for overall design, technology, sportsmanship and commitment to FIRST.

“About six [Minnesota] teams advance to the Championship [at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis in late April] and 24 teams in Minnesota will compete at the [MSHSL] state championship in May,” said Rosen.

Amy Doherty, Program Specialist for the FIRST Robotics competition at the MSHSL, oversees the partnership with FIRST and the state tournament in May.

“The MSHSL Board of Directors had a goal in the last school year to look into adding ‘academic’ competition to our current athletic and fine arts activities,” explained Doherty. “The Board decided it would be a great fit for our assortment of activities and would help get the League more involved with academic-based competition.”

Why isn’t Robotics at Minnehaha?

At one time, Minnehaha had a Robotics club run by past math teacher, Dale Pearson. However, the club was short lived and died after Pearson’s retirement.

Now, Minnehaha has yet to fully acknowledge the vast amount of possibilities and opportunities that arise from involvement in the FIRST Robotics Competition. Not only will students earn a varsity letter for competing, but participation will also “help more students connect to their school in a positive and fun way, in addition to teaching them real world skills that they can use in future careers,” explained Doherty.

The biggest concern among Minnehaha faculty is the lack of expertise and a possible lack of interest.

“I do have an interest in starting robotics, but I’m constrained by my schedule of teaching as well as by other factors,” said physics teacher, Sam Terfa. “Students would need to know their way around a circuit diagram and circuit elements. This is typically not taught until the spring of 12th grade physics, and even then, students wouldn’t know enough to be able to make a robot.”

Vice Principal, Mike DiNardo teaches a summer Lego Robotics class that’s offered to first through eighth graders.

“My class could be a feeder [for a robotics program] in terms of getting kids interested in pursuing that level of engineering, but it would be a huge jump,” said DiNardo.

Contrary to the public perception at Minnehaha, the teacher or staff member who could be the advisor for a Robotics team doesn’t need to know how to create a robot.

“Teams are paired with mentors who can assist with this, or school staff can chat with other schools in their area who have a team to ask what their experiences have been,” said Doherty. “It shouldn’t be hard to find another team, as there are currently 131 in the state. They can attend a fall invitational to see what it’s all about, can attend training sessions, and can see what the procedures are within their own school for adding an activity.”

In fact, DeLaSalle, Cretin-Derham Hall, Breck, Blake, Visitation and St. Anthony are just a few among Minnehaha’s many peer schools that have a Robotics program in place.

So what’s holding Minnehaha back? If it’s not lack of expertise, is it student interest?

“If I had the opportunity when I was younger, I would have loved to have been involved in something like this,” explained senior Wesley Peterson, who helps DiNardo with his Lego Robotics classes in the summer, “I know that I would have rather been able to participate in physics activities earlier than senior year. It would also be a serious incentive for the younger kids in the robotics classes to go to MA.”

Sophomore Max Thompson agrees.

“Ever since I was little I would play with the Lego Mindstorms robots,” said Thompson. “I won a contest once by building one that climbed a fence. I would be very interested [in joining a team].”

The opportunity of pursuing a prosperous academic future and eventual career path lies directly in front of Minnehaha students and faculty in the form of six weeks, one team and one robot.

Who will step up to the plate?

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