When Lisa Klein, a coach for Messalonskee High School’s Infinite Loop robotics team, opened her email and saw an invitation to travel to China for a competition, she was taken by surprise.

Her first thought was that the email came from China, Maine, she said. She messaged her friend who works for FIRST, or For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, the nonprofit that promotes interest in science and mathematics and runs competitions for robotics teams, and asked, “Is this for real?”

The invitation was for real, and it was coming from the China halfway around the world in Asia, not the one a half-hour away in Kennebec County.

Students from the FIRST robotics team at the high school, along with Klein, two mentors and two program alumni, boarded a bus Tuesday afternoon in Augusta to begin the journey to Qingdao, China, a city on the east coast of the country south of Beijing and north of Shanghai. Two students, senior Michael Viens and freshman T.J. Petrill, represent the team. The two alumni are Gretchen Rice, who graduated last year and just finished her first year at the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Massachusetts; and Justin Shuman, who is a student at Kennebec Valley Community College.

They will work with another team based in Qingdao and compete in the FIRST China International Competition starting June 2 at the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum. Principal Paula Callan said the students arrived Thursday morning.

“Obviously it’s exciting. It’s intriguing,” said Klein, who coaches the team along with Keith McGlauflin. “You know, there’s a little bit of nervousness going to a new country.”

No one in the group has been to China before, and one of the students has never been on a plane, she said.

They’re excited, though, Klein said, because the invitation was an honor for the program.

Infinite Loop, which started in 2007, is one of six teams in the United States invited to participate in the competition in China, which will feature 200 teams from around the world. In 2016, more than 2,600 teams from the United States competed in the FIRST Robotics Competition. FIRST estimates that more than 52,000 teams worldwide are competing in different competitions. A group of students in Falmouth, called Team 172 — Northern Force, was also chosen to compete.

“We feel like it’s because we’ve made a name for ourselves,” Klein said in discussing why they were chosen, both through winning competitions and promoting interest in the fields of STEM, or science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

For eight days, the students will build a 120-pound-or-less robot with a team from China, whom they’ve talked with over Skype. After a day of sightseeing, they’ll spend three days competing before returning home.

The students are “going over a little bit blind” about how the process works, especially in such a short time frame, Klein said.

In a normal season, FIRST releases the new rules for the game in January and the students have six weeks to build a robot that complies with the rules, purchasing all their own materials. Then, they compete for another six weeks.

The rules are based on a theme. Last year was a medieval theme, with obstacles such as a water moat and rough terrain the robot had to get over. This past year, the theme was steampunk, and the robot had to collect fuel, deliver gears to airship pilots and then climb a rope to the airship for the last 30 seconds, among other things, said Klein, who was a mentor for five years before becoming a coach two years ago. The teams compete in groups of three versus three.

Despite the nerves about the short time frame, Klein said this will be a “wonderful experience” for the students, not only because they’ll get to experience a different culture, but also because they’ll be helping and growing with another team.

Infinite Loop was chosen in part, Klein believes, because the team “knows how to help another team get started doing what they need to do.”

The organization is paying for in-country travel, meals and lodging, and the students held fundraisers to pay for the international plane tickets and visa costs. The school also gave the group $7,500.

Infinite Loop, which has 16 student members, has won a number of awards in competitions over the years, including the engineering inspiration award and the gracious professionalism award. The team also has won the chairman’s award, which Klein said is considered the most prestigious award at competitions, for five years in a row.

The award goes to teams that are a model others should emulate, according to FIRST’s website, as well as those that embody “the purpose and goals of FIRST.”

The students do a lot of outreach to promote interest in the STEM fields, Klein said, a major goal of the FIRST organization, which emphasizes that it’s about “more than robots.” They present demonstrations in classrooms or summer camps, mentor middle schoolers during Lego week and help other schools jump-start their own FIRST teams.

“We’ve gone to many, many schools and tried to get the interest going,” Klein said, “… which is what FIRST is all about. They want to grow interest in STEM fields.”

The Messalonskee students have helped create 13 teams in the area, including programs in Hallowell, Livermore Falls and Brewer. Sometimes, they chat via Skype with students farther away in towns such as Brewer, or they offer to share their building space at Wrabacon Inc. in Oakland with other teams that don’t have a place to work.

“I just think that this is a wonderful opportunity for them to get hands-on learning,” Klein said, adding that the students not only learn about engineering, but also about business.

At Messalonskee High School, students run the program like a business, she said, working together on a $60,000 budget, which is funded through donors, sponsors and $5,000 from the school. There are meetings and captains, as well as positions such as treasurer.

“They get the business aspects as well as the STEM aspects,” she said.

FIRST was founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen, an inventor and advocate for science and technology, to inspire young people to take part in more science and technology programs.

Now more than 460,000 students worldwide are involved in one of the FIRST programs, and interest in the STEM fields is rising. Studies on the effects of the robotics program show that it encourages students to do better in school and strengthens their skills in leadership and problem-solving.

According to an evaluation of the effect of FIRST programs by the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University in 2011, 83 percent of students who take part in FIRST programs were interested in becoming an engineer or a scientist and 92 percent increased their interest in going to college.

A Brandeis University study from 2005 found that FIRST participants were twice as likely to major in science or engineering than their peers, and 33 percent of women participants majored in engineering.

More than 75 percent of FIRST alumni also enter a STEM field as a student or professional, according to a survey conducted by FIRST.

Madeline St. Amour — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @madelinestamour