OAKLAND — When members of Messalonskee High School’s robotics team found out that their longtime coach wouldn’t be returning next season, there was a brief moment when the team’s future seemed in question.

That period of uncertainty lasted only a second, because the team means too much to students and parents to fall by the wayside.

“I can’t imagine this program will go under just because someone else may take over the official reins,” said Jamee Luce, the team’s head mentor, or coach. “I feel like the kids would revolt if it did.”

Luce, who has coached the club since it started eight years ago, recently announced that she had taken a job with FIRST, the nonprofit that organizes robotics competitions. She started working with the club when she was a science and mathematics teacher at Messalonskee High School and stayed on even after leaving the school two years ago to head up the Robotics Institute of Maine.

As she takes a step back from the team, however, there are others willing to keep it going.

As the team’s head mentor, Luce took care of administrative parts of the program, putting in long hours on her cellphone and computer applying for competitions, arranging transportation and dealing with the details of the FIRST system, while the team focused on the nuts and bolts of the robot itself. Under her leadership, the team has gone to the FIRST world championships in St. Louis, Missouri, for the last four years.

But Luce didn’t coach in a vacuum. The team has 19 passionate young roboticists and is supported by a dedicated network of adult mentors and alumni.

Luce was speaking in a loft space at Wrabacon, an Oakland conveyor belt company where the club, called Infinite Loop, meets after school.

In comparison to some of the international teams it competes against, Messalonskee’s team is a scrappy underdog relying on fundraising such as bottle drives to balance funding it gets from sponsorships and the RSU 18 administration. Over the summer, the team is raising money to get ready for the next competition season, which starts in January, when the team gets the rules for the yearly competition put on by FIRST.

This year the task was to build a robot that could stack rectangular plastic bins on top of one another with bonus points for being able to deposit a swimming pool noodle, a stand-in for trash, into the top bin.

On Tuesday afternoon, about 10 team members were working on a complete redesign of their robot, making fixes so it could catch and lift the green bins more easily. At each competition, the team has two minutes and 30 seconds to see how many bins it can lift and stack. For fifteen seconds, the machine has to be fully automated, meaning that it has to be programmed to take on the task independently.

Gretchen Rice, a high school junior and the team’s programming captain, said she’s still apprehensive about Luce’s departure.

“I’m worried, but I think that if everyone comes together, we can make it happen,” Rice said.

In Luce’s absence, responsibility might shift to the 10 other adult mentors who help guide the team.

Jim Belanger, whose son Brandon is the team’s mechanical captain, said the only thing that will change in the next season is that Luce won’t be there every day.

“My role’s not going to change. I’ll be here as much as they need me,” Belanger said.

“If the team was to fail, we would have failed too, because our kids would be losing out,” he added.

Bob and Lisa Klein, whose son Delsin is on the team, said it would be hard to replace the amount of work Luce put into the team, but there is no way they are giving it up. They plan to work together to make sure the team has all the qualifications it needs to get into competitions next year.

The Kleins’ older son, Robert, went to college to be an engineer after spending four years on the robotics team, one of dozens of students who have taken the skills and knowledge they learned and applied them to university programs after graduating.

This year, some of the students who started with Luce eight years ago are graduating from college and going on to careers in science and technology. Although she won’t be physically in the space anymore, Luce intends to keep mentoring the team from afar and helping the students she’s worked so closely with realize their ambitions.

“I think that’s one of the really powerful things about this program. The relationships you build are so in-depth,” she said.

“We all are really close and intertwined in this technical and intense way, because everyone on this team gives their entire life to this program.”

Peter McGuire — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @PeteL_McGuire


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