With enough interest, Belle Plaine Junior-Senior High School students will have the opportunity to build their own robot and compete against other teams this winter. The robot (above) was entered in a state competition.

With enough interest, Belle Plaine Junior-Senior High School students will have the opportunity to build their own robot and compete against other teams this winter. The robot (above) was entered in a state competition.

by John Mueller

If you hear of or a robot performing commands for students in the Belle Plaine Junior-Senior High School’s common area next week, fear not. It’s part of a benign coup, but rather a recruiting effort to form a robotics team the school hopes to form this winter.

Monday night, the Belle Plaine School Board gave its formal OK for a robotics program to begin preparation for competition this winter, if enough students show interest this fall.

At a workshop earlier this month, directors were enthused with the issue, seeing it as a way to involve students interested in math and science who otherwise might not be involved in activities.

The program will give students experience with computer-aided drafting (CAD), engineering, design and other inter-disciplinary sciences.

“We kind of have a void with math and science opportunities,” said David Kreft, the junior-senior high’s principal.

Prior Lake High School has agreed to serve as a mentor school to Belle Plaine. The Prior Lake team started in 2007 with 21 students on one team. Today, Prior Lake has 48 students in the program working at two different levels, said Joe Passofaro, the Prior Lake team’s founding advisor.

He believes the robotics program can be “life-changing.” Passofaro has seen Prior Lake High School students win acceptance into prestigious engineering programs and jobs with aerospace and computer companies in part because of their experience in the robotics program.


‘It Could be Mayhem’

A robot a Prior Lake team built for competition is tentatively scheduled to be at the junior-senior high during lunch periods Tuesday. Kreft hopes it will be an incentive to spark interest here.

“It could be mayhem, but it will get kids curious about it a chance to see it,” he said.

Students interested in math, engineering and science are among the most likely to be drawn to the program. The district would also have to hire an advisor to guide the team, Kreft said.

Students in the program will build a robot from a kit the school purchases. At kick-off events held simultaneously in cities around the state -- Mankato, Minneapolis, Duluth -- Jan. 6, participating teams  will all learn the tasks their robots must perform, like shooting a basketball.

The kickoff event gives teams six weeks to build their robot and prepare it for competition. At state competitions, teams are judged on how well their entries perform the assigned task.

Robotics is increasing in popularity to the point the Minnesota State High School League recognizes it as a varsity-level activity, like One Act Play. Students will have the opportunity to earn a varsity letter on a team. In addition to the lessons in math, science and engineering, students will also be forced to work together in a team setting.

“This program is too big for any one person to do on their own,” Passofaro said. “That’s by design.”

Because the MSHSL sponsors the event, all teams compete at the regional level. From there, the top teams advance to state-level competition, Passofaro said. How advanced the Belle Plaine program could be, he said, “depends on your aspirations. What are your objectives? How big do you want it to be?”

Kreft attended a MSHSL meeting on robotics last spring, while he was principal at Springfield High School. While Springfield was too small for the program, Kreft believes the robotics program “would be a good fit for Belle Plaine.” 

Teams generally range from a half-dozen on the small end to as many as 30. The most successful teams, Kreft said, are between 12 and 24 members.

The program requires about $6,500 in startup costs. Ongoing costs are about $5,000 annually. Grants from private-sector companies and NASA are available to help with the funding.

The district starts kids using their creativity to building things on their own. A Lego club operates after school at Oak Crest. At the junior-senior high level, the number of interested students will determine if the proposal moves forward.

“We don’t have any skin in the game until we buy a kit,” Kreft said.