Messalonskee High School’s robotics club students and their robot, Ali, didn’t come home with the FIRST Robotics World Championship trophy last month, or anything close to it.
They won five of nine matches and finished 52nd out of 100 teams in their division.
The top-ranked teams from each of four divisions went on play each other for the championship and all the bragging rights that come with it.
But team advisor Jamee Luce said that the student participants won something far more valuable for their efforts — every single one of the team’s 10 graduating seniors will go on to college. Luce ticked off the bright futures in store for many of the team members.
“Nine of the 10 are going into engineering programs,” she said. “I have two going into Worcester Polytechnic Institute, one in Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida. Three are going to the University of Maine in Orono. One is going to the University of New Hampshire. My non-engineer is going to the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.”
In some cases, Luce said, the robotics club simply has attracted students who were likely to succeed anyway.
“Certainly the robotics club does attract the brains and the geeks,” she said.
But there are also signs that involvement in the club has taken some students who were struggling and catapulted them toward a good chance at a bright career.
“Some are coming from families where their parents either didn’t graduate fom high school or didn’t get a college degree,” she said. “If you had taken these kids four years ago, less than 30 percent of them even imagined that they would go into a science or technology field. Because they’re involved in this hands-on experiential learning, nine of 10 are saying, âThis is what I want to do. I want to be in science. I want to be in the tech field.'”
If the students attain degrees in those fields and return to Maine, Luce said, there are ample local employment opportunities for them, many from the same companies that helped to sponsor the team.
“Fairchild Semiconductor, Texas Instruments, IDEXX Laboratories, Bangor Savings Bank, AT&T — all of them are dying to have this group of students four years from now,” she said. “They’re going to be the ones who understand how to get large projects done and have time management skills. They’re the ones who are inspired to change the world. They have the next big invention.”
Dakota Condon, 17, the student headed to the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, in North Adams, Mass., said she wasn’t even aware that robotics clubs existed when she first transferred to Messalonskee as a sophomore from a high school in Washington state.
She said she always planned to go to college, possibly for journalism or photography, but her experience with the robotics club helped to bring her career plans into focus.
“My first year as a member of the team, I got a leadership position as historian. It was the job of taking pictures and organizing information. That really got me started in how to represent an organization.”
Now Condon would like to represent some other company or organization as a graduate in public relations and corporate communications.
Condon said the club’s seniors include two students from the top 10 academic achievers of the school’s graduating class, and two more from the top 20. All 10, she said, take at least one advanced placement class.
“We’re well represented in the AP area,” she said.
Of the other graduating seniors, McKenzie Brunelle plans to go into biomedical engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute; Alex Dyer plans to go into marine veterinary science at the University of Maine Honors College in Orono; Taylor Ferguson plans to go into occupational therapy at UNH; Robert Klein plans to go into mechanical engineering at University of Maine; Amy Pinkham plans to go into computer engineering at University of Maine; Kirsten Nichol plans to go into biology at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia; Sydney O’Neal plans to go into aeronautical and performance vehicles engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla.; Justin Shuman plans to go into mechanical engineering at University of Maine; Brady Snowden plans to go into computer engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
At the world championships, which were held in St. Louis, Mo., Luce said the team did better than it had in previous competitions, partially thanks to a last-minute retooling that allowed their robot to defend the ball against other robots. Team members worked frantically to build and integrate a blocking mechanism, created from two pieces of plastic pipe that telescoped upward via a motorized pulley system controlled remotely by the club’s four-member “drive team.”
“We were one of the best defensive robots there because our blocker was actually working,” Luce said.
Before next year’s FIRST competition gears up, the students will compete in off-season events, during which the focus will be on training the team’s younger members to step into the leadership roles currently occupied by the graduating seniors, Luce said.
Before the graduation rolls around in June, the seniors will act as mentors at robotics events in Manchester, N.H., Worcester and Boston by the end of June.
Junior versions of the club will feed new members into the group so that they can continue on their own path toward competitive — and academic — success.
“This is the off-season,” Luce said, “when we can inspire the next generation of kids for the team.”