Robotics team educates, inspires teens

FAIRMONT – Fairmont Area High School vocations teacher Bob Bonin is a varsity coach, but you won’t find him on the field, pitch, court or mat.

You will find him and his team in a classroom, working with computers, soldering irons and wrenches.

Bonin heads up the FIRST Robotics team, a group of boys and girls tasked with designing, building, marketing and competing with a robot designed to complete specific tasks.

This year, the bot needs to throw as many flying discs into its team’s goal in two minutes and 15 seconds as possible.

It is not a simple task.

The team has met every night for the past four weeks since the challenge was announced, writing code, building prototypes and raising financial support. It runs something like a small company, with each “department” working on a portion of the task.

“This is more than a robot competition,” said Bonin, noting that students also can compete in website design, safety animation, ingenuity and more. “There are a lot of different ways to get into robotics.”

The team is part of FIRST Robotics, an organization begun in the early 1990s to inspire an appreciation of science and technology in young people. The program is designed to build self-confidence, knowledge and life skills while motivating young people to pursue opportunities in science, technology and engineering.

And it has been successful locally since Fairmont’s team got started five years ago. Bonin said five students who have been involved in the program have gone on to study mechanical engineering at the college level, a few of whom had no expectation of pursuing the field before joining the team.

“We are putting grads out that are using these complicated skills,” Bonin said.

Statewide, schools are having similar results since starting their own robotics teams.

According to Bonin, the number of students enrolled in the University of Minnesota’s college of science and technology that have participated on robotics teams is six times higher than it was in 2008.

And the U isn’t the only school looking for robotics students. College recruiters are commonplace at robotics competitions, as schools seek those students showing promise in science, technology, engineering and math, the so-called STEM careers.

Fairmont senior Marcus Wiebe is one of those students. He plans to attend South Dakota School of Mines and Technology next year to study mechanical engineering, a path he chose after participating on the robotics team.

“This definitely helped push me to know, ‘Yes, this is what I want to do.'” he said.

But the program isn’t just for those wanting to dedicate their lives to building complicated machinery.

Senior Payton Schlomann, involved with the team for three years and currently serving as an overseer, has no plans to pursue a STEM degree next year. He is planning to major in music.

“I do this because it is really fun,” he said. “It is a hobby.”

Schlomann said moving up the ranks on the team has been something he has really enjoyed. The robotics season ensures students new to the program are ushered in with the mentoring of veterans.

The robotics year begins in January, with its biggest competition soon after. By the end of the school year, the state and national qualifying rounds are complete. Over the summer, students compete at the state fair, and when the new students arrive in the fall, the season is winding down, allowing older kids to teach the newbies what they have done and how they did it. When January rolls around with the announcement of a new task, everyone on the team has had a least a little experience.

Lucas Jedlicka was one of those newbies this fall. Jedlicka enjoys the programming aspect of robotics. With the exit of the previous programming guru – former teacher Mike Plucinski – Jedlicka was tasked with learning a new programming language quickly and proficiently.

He joined the team because a friend was going to the first meeting and he tagged along. His friend didn’t join, but Jedlicka did. Now he is writing code in Java, a real-world programming language he will be able to use in the years ahead.

Former Fairmont grad Brian Sokoloski, an employee at Kahler Automation, has been helping Jedlicka a couple times per week. Sokoloski graduated in 2006, before the robotics program began, but also before the school discontinued its computer programming classes. He decided to volunteer because he believes in the program, and he thinks it is fun.

“I love it,” he said. “I love the unknown of trying to solve a problem.”

Robotics programs across the state, but especially in the Twin Cities, are known for having community mentors – it is something highly valued by FIRST – but it has been slow in coming locally. Sokoloski is the first community mentor locally, but the team is actively recruiting.

Mentors don’t do the work for students, Bonin said. They are just there to help the students talk through a problem. In fact, Fairmont’s team has a reputation for having students work out their machine’s problems. Bonin and the other teacher-mentors try to stay out of their way.

The experience of problem-solving is another way the program has helped students gain real-world skills.

“The first three years it was heavily mentor-driven – now it is kid-led, the way it is supposed to be,” Bonin said.

But all this does come at a cost. Fairmont’s team receives no funding from the school, and a bare-bones program costs about $16,000. The solution has been financial support from local businesses.

3M provides more than half of the funding, at $9,000 per year.

The robotics marketing team has been tasked with writing support letters and maintaining a presence with local companies.

“We are bringing in our own sponsors,” Bonin said.

Over the past five years, the program has seen success at regional and metro competitions, and Bonin said the program is changing students for the better.

“We are such a different program than when we started,” he said. “We’ve grown, we’ve matured. … It makes the school stronger. Kids start saying, ‘I want to learn math; I want to learn science.'”

But the team isn’t resting on its success. Bonin hopes to see an increase in girls joining. He is making plans to bring the robot to Girl Scouts and the elementary school to show kids it is fun and accessible. He also hopes to increase the number of community mentors and bring the team to local companies for tours.

“A lot of our kids don’t know what happens in the buildings they drive by,” he said. “The more we can connect these kids to real world situations, the more they can come back and say, ‘Yes, this is what I want to do.'”