High school robotics grooms tech leaders of the future

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PORTLAND — Advances in automation and artificial intelligence can give those with skills in robotics – both in programming and in constructing the machines –a career advantage.

But that’s not the only reason hundreds of students at high schools across southern Maine participate on their local robotics teams.

It’s also the teamwork, the camaraderie and the challenge that draws them.

These days, with many schools putting more focus and effort on science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, fields, more and more students, including girls, are becoming fascinated with robotics.

Teams at schools throughout southern Maine are in the midst of a six-week competition season that culminates in the New England championships in early April, with a chance to attend the world finals in St. Louis.

Earning the highest scores in New England at their last two competitions, students at Baxter Academy for Technology and Science in Portland have already punched their tickets to worlds.

But the $20,000 to $30,000 cost to get the team, their robot and the advisers to St. Louis means the Outliers will not be able to attend unless additional sponsors step forward, according to team leader Jonathan Amory.

Meanwhile, the Northern Force robotics team, which is made up of students from Falmouth and Gorham high schools, is not sure if they will score enough points in the next competition to make it to the world finals.

But that’s OK, because Northern Force has been invited to mentor the fledgling robotics teams in China, and will spend about 10 days in Shanghai in early June to tutor Chinese youngsters in the skills needed to build a functioning robot.

To get to China, Northern Force is conducting a GoFundMe campaign, with a goal of raising $10,000, to cover all of the team’s travel costs. The hosts are paying for food and lodging, according to John Kraljic, the engineering and technology teacher at Falmouth High who advises the team.

At its first competition of the season this past weekend, Kraljic said the Northern Force team was “not quite ready for prime time and our performance suffered.” However, he added, “We were able to work out the majority of our problems and made a very strong showing on Sunday.”

Northern Force did not make it to the elimination matches, but did win a design award for its robot, which was praised for being “an upbeat example of a functional system-design cowboy, with speedy and accurate gear delivery and a design that encourages teamwork between fuel-wranglers.”

All of the high school robotics teams in Maine are affiliated with FIRST Robotics, a national nonprofit that sponsors an annual competition designed to immerse young people in the challenges associated with designing and building robots to complete specific tasks.

FIRST works to design “accessible, innovative programs that motivate young people to pursue education and career opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math, while building self-confidence, knowledge, and life skills,” the organization’s website states.

This past weekend most of the teams from Maine headed to Massachusetts to take part in their initial FIRST competition of the season. Many will then take part in the final competition of the season being held in the next couple weeks in Lewiston.

In addition to the team from Baxter Academy, Cheverus High School in Portland also has a robotics team, called Radical Impact. The team from South Portland is called the Red Riot Crew, and the team from Bonny Eagle, in Standish, is called BERT. There is also a relatively new robotics club being offered at Brunswick Junior High School.

Robotics programs can be expensive, particularly the parts for each season’s bot, which must change in design and purpose. Under the FIRST model, each team also relies on a network of parents and industry professionals that provide support, from fundraising to building to marketing and outreach.

The team at Baxter Academy is in its third year, and, Amory said, “robotics teams are an excellent way for students to get experience working complex, real-world problems.” Participation on the Outliers also gives students the chance to learn project management, time and resource management, teamwork, budgeting and marketing skills.

“Over the course of the three-month (competition season), each of our students puts in almost 500 hours outside of class working on their robot,” Amory said. “This intense experience goes far beyond what they can learn in normal classes.”

Initially, he said, the Outliers had only two girls on the team, but “we worked hard to recruit more girls, and now have 10 girls out of roughly 25 team members.” Girls now “run critical departments on the team, including the electronics, mechanical systems, drive team and pit.”

The Northern Force gets about two-thirds of its students from Falmouth and one-third from Gorham, said one of the team leaders, Mary Giglio, a senior who is foregoing the China trip to attend graduation.

For sophomores Annie deCastro and Ivan Cadigan, the draw of participating on the robotics team is not just the opportunity to learn something not offered in any other class, but also the chance to take on a unique challenge and meet like-minded people.

The Northern Force team meets at Lanco Integrated in Westbrook, which is where members build their competition robots and try to work out the kinks. Giglio said during the robotics season the team is at work “pretty much every night” and most Saturdays.

Each robot has a weight limit of 120 pounds, and this year’s challenge is to build a bot that can gather fuel for a faux steam-powered airship, as well as attach gears that would allow the airship’s rotors to function.

Giglio said the most important functions for a competition robot are “speed, efficiency, and a rapid fire rate.”

Samantha Lewis, is a junior at Cheverus and a team leader for its Radical Impact robotics team. She said robotics meets are “centers of innovation and (represent the) future of our technology.”

“Robotics is a sport for the mind and the career possibilities are endless,” she added. “As robotics becomes more popular, more females are being introduced to it. More females have joined our team each year, and they are just as smart and offer up good advice, which may have been previously overlooked.”

Lewis said, “I want people to know that robotics is a tech competition, but there is so much more to it than that. The teams are built through trust and communication. The purpose of robotics is to inspire the young minds of the world, and through it comes an unforgettable and irreplaceable experience.”

“Robotics is about (creating) future innovators, and you do it through teamwork and friendship,” she said.

Sean Manning, one of the team leaders for the Red Riot Crew at South Portland High, said robotics programs are important because “as time progresses, robots are taking the place of humans for repetitive tasks (and) someone has to build, program, and maintain these machines.”

He also said that students involved in robotics are “learning many more life skills than just turning wrenches,” including mechanical, programming, data analysis, outreach and even marketing skills. Each team “needs all sort of artwork to stand out in competitions,” Manning said. “Shirts need designing (and) robots need painting.”

John DiRenzo, a team leader for the robotics team at Bonny Eagle, said, “Robotics is becoming more and more popular as it provides students an avenue to experience STEM education at its best. The excitement of building a robot and seeing the results of their work by competing at various competitions is (also) extremely rewarding.”

He also agreed with other team leaders that it’s “important to have both male and female members on the team so other youth can see that gender does not impact the ability of a student to achieve their goals.”

Overall, DiRenzo said, “Robotics is a great program that inspires and motivates students and ignites their interest in STEM careers.”

At Brunswick Junior High, teacher Conan McNamara’s goal is to get students interested in STEM fields early. But, he also said, “The primary goal of the club is to provide a fun extracurricular activity for students.”

“Robotics has taken off because it’s fun (and) challenging,” McNamara said. “This process (also) directly translates to problem-solving skills and to applying the scientific process. We get plenty of teachable moments in robotics.”

In summing up the importance of exposing young people to robotics, Amory, the team leader from Baxter Academy, said, “Students working on these robots across the state are the future of the Maine tech sector and they (deserve) all the support they can get.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KirishCollins.

Members of the Red Riots Crew robotics team from South Portland High School work on their robot in preparation for the current competition season.

Members of the Northern Force robotics team, which includes students from Falmouth and Gorham high schools, put the finishing touches on their robot before their first competition of the season this past weekend.

The Radical Impact robotics team from Cheverus High School in Portland gets ready to take the floor during this past weekend’s competition.

The Outlier robotics team from the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science in Portland, celebrate their first win of the season.

To function adequately, a robot requires a lot of intricately detailed parts, including specialized wiring.

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