Robotics on a roll in Minnesota schoolsAn explosion in the popularity of high school robotics teams suddenly has made it chic to be geek.
By: Heron Marquez Estrada and Mike Creger, Minneapolis Star Tribune and Duluth News Tribune
An explosion in the popularity of high school robotics teams suddenly has made it chic to be geek.
Robotics team members are getting varsity letters and patches, being paraded before school assemblies like other sports stars and seeing trophies in the same lobby display cases as their football, basketball or baseball counterparts.
“It’s the new kid on the block,” said Dawn Nichols, head of school at Convent of the Visitation Catholic School in Mendota Heights, which has the only all-girls robotics team in Minnesota.
A telling statistic: For the first time, there are more varsity robotics teams than there are boys’ varsity hockey teams in the state. There are 156 high school boys’ hockey teams and 180 robotics teams, up from 153 last year, according to the Minnesota State High School League.
At Duluth East High School, coach Tim Velner and his Daredevils team thrive on the success they’ve had the past four seasons. Both East and Hibbing High School created teams in 2008, the first ones in the Northland.
But East’s 29 team members also are drawn to the variety of tasks involved in robotics, Velner said.
“You can’t play down the competitive aspect,” Velner said. “But kids like it because of the diversity. There are a lot of skill sets involved.”
The Daredevils are broken into teams. A writer could find a niche on the media and marketing team, Velner said, while a number-cruncher finds a place on the business or accounting team.
“We don’t just build robots,” he said. “We have the task of promoting science and technology as well.”
While boys’ and girls’ high school basketball teams remain the most common with more than 400 teams each, no other sport or activity has grown as quickly as robotics, which began with just two teams in 2006 and likely will surpass 200 soon.
Teams in the Northland have grown from East and Hibbing to include Duluth Denfeld, Marshall School, Two Harbors, Silver Bay, Lakeview Christian
Academy, Deer River, Nashwauk-Keewatin and Cook County High School.
The Duluth Entertainment Convention Center will host two FIRST Robotics regional competitions, concurrently, March 7-9, with more than 100 teams expected. It will be the third annual competition held in Duluth.
“Minnesota is becoming a mecca for robotics,” said Joe Passofaro, one of the mentors/coaches for the Prior Lake High School robotics team, which won the state championship last year. “We’re getting a group here that is coming onto the world scene.”
More teams, state recognition
Two Harbors is fielding its first team this season. Coach Mark Schlangen has 14 students.
He said his team has a “steep learning curve” to get to the levels East has reached. For now, they will keep their goals simple, he said.
“We’re focusing on a solid machine that works well,” he said. “It won’t be the most sophisticated.”
Schlangen said he attended last year’s robotics competition at the DECC “and saw how cool it was,” he said. He came back to Two Harbors and started hatching plans for a team of his own.
Schlangen said startups like his are greatly helped by the FIRST Robotics model that teams around the state follow.
“They a put a framework out there,” he said.
Teams are encouraged to get adult mentors in the community. East has about a 3-1 student-to-mentor ratio. Two Harbors has nearly as many mentors as team members, with 12.
Minnesota last year became the first state in the country to sanction a state tournament and championship for robotics teams. Teams compete by building robots to perform specific tasks — shooting basketballs last year, throwing flying discs this year — and then seeing whose works the best.
The high school league said changing perceptions were part of the reason its board decided to elevate robotics to the varsity level, complete with a state tournament in May and team championship trophies.
Mark Lawrence, who helped start the Edina team in 2006, said varsity recognition is only going to help robotics grow, while also helping to change how the participants are perceived.
“You walk into the lobby cases, and there are the trophies,” Lawrence said. “It shows that we are part of the school fabric.”
Lawrence, Passofaro and others point out that there also are hundreds of nonvarsity robotics teams in middle and elementary schools, bringing the total number of kids participating on robotics teams to more than 4,600.
Velner said the best place to look for growth in robotics is at the elementary and middle school level. Duluth has two middle school teams and three elementary school teams, he said.
And starting next school year, robotics will be taught in the school system as part of physics classes.
“It just shows there was a niche not being tapped into,” Velner said.
“The growth is terribly impressive, especially compared to other activities that have been around for years and have worldwide followings,” said Amy Doherty, who is with the high school league. “It seems like (robotics) is something that every school would want to be involved in.”
The University of Minnesota already is starting to see ripple effects. In 2008, two years after the first robotics teams appeared, 12 students with robotics team experience enrolled at the university’s College of Science and Engineering. Last year that number had grown to 76.
Also, the first state robotics tournament was held on the university campus at Williams Arena, allowing hundreds of potential new students and their parents to experience the Twin Cities campus, said Steve Crouch, dean of the College of Science and Engineering.
The Duluth campus also has hosted regional events, and UMD students serve as mentors on high school teams.
Toss a flying disc
The new season kicked off in early January when the robot kits were delivered to the teams. Since then, teams, which can be as small as two people and as large as 50 or more, have been working feverishly to develop the best mechanisms to meet this year’s challenge: having the robot toss flying discs through openings.
The kits cost $5,000 apiece, which is the biggest obstacle to the growth of robotics. Starting a team and keeping it going costs about $10,000 a year, including the kit and additional parts to improve it. Although robotics is now a varsity sport, it still is treated financially as an activity and not budgeted for by districts.
Northland teams are dependent on sponsors and donations for operation expenses.
“Corporate funding is critical,” Velner said.
Schlangen said the Lake Superior school district helped with some initial funding, but the team will follow the model of other Northland teams.
East students also would like to have their own place to work. The build team works at Archer Racing near Duluth International Airport.
“They would love to be building it right here,” Velner said from East.
Velner said robotics competition is preparing his students for life beyond high school.
“In the five years I’ve been doing this, 100 percent of the kids go professional,” he said. “That doesn’t happen in other sports. That’s a big thing.”
He said students are learning how to work in a “robotics economy,” one where they will deal with machines more than people every day.
“This is a springboard for life,” he said.