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Minneota School starts new robotics program

January 18, 2012
By Jenny Kirk , Marshall Independent

Mike Braithwaite joked about currently being a basketball coach in two different leagues, but in actuality, the Minneota School ag teacher is doing just that.

Braithwaite not only coaches junior high boys basketball, he is also spearheading a new FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotics program at Minneota. Beginning Jan. 7, Braithwaite's rookie team of students will have six weeks to design, construct and program a robot to meet the 2012 challenge, which has a basketball concept.

"The robot more or less has to play basketball," Braithwaite said. "It has to pick up some foam basketballs and shoot it into hoops at three different levels. So we have to figure out how to make the robot do that."

While the FIRST Robotics challenge changes every year, the rules and time constraints do not.

"The competition kicked off on Jan. 7," Braithwaite said. "That's when we found out what the robot has to do and we got our parts. We have until President's Day. Then the robot has to be bagged and tagged and then locked up until competition. It'll be interesting."

Regional competition will be held March 29-31 at the Mariucci Arena on the University of Minnesota campus.

"We'll be at the Mariucci Arena, but there will be other teams at Williams Arena," Braithwaite said. "There will be 60 teams in each one. And, it's growing every year."

FIRST was founded by Segway inventor Dean Kamen in 1989, with the purpose of inspiring young people in America to pursue future careers in science and technology by simulating the same levels of fun, recognition and celebration that students experience by participating in high school athletics. In its 20th season in 2011, the FIRST Robotics Competition had 2,072 teams nationwide.

"Robotics has a little bit of everything for kids," Braithwaite said. "There's fabrications for building and welding. There's programming. It hits a lot of areas, like science, math and engineering."

In August, during the Minnesota State Fair, the Minnesota State High School League announced its support for robotics, with the hopes that its partnership with FIRST would make the robotics competitions more mainstream in Minnesota high schools by giving it the status and statewide cohesiveness of other extracurricular activities. The first-ever Minnesota State Robotics Tournament will be May 19.

"The MSHSL sanctions are part of the reason my principal (Todd Griepentrog) asked if I'd be interested in it," Braithwaite said. "It's a pretty cool thing that they're recognizing other activities besides sports."

Efficient time management is going to be the key, Braithwaite said, from now until the end of the competition. Braithwaite, who taught at East Grand Forks prior to coming to Minneota this year, is also juggling Minnesota FFA duties along with teaching, coaching and advising the robotics team.

"Our robotics team has been practicing for over two hours every day after school," he said. "I have a science teacher (Darren Clausen) helping, too, so we split the workload. He has some programming experience. We usually have between 10-20 kids showing up at practice, so that's nice."

A community member has also provided support for the new program.

"We have a community member, who has been around the community longer than I have, coming in," Braithwaite said. "He has some ties to Microsoft and has done some stuff with engineering. So he has some resources that come in handy."

The most difficult aspect of starting a new program is sustainability, Braithwaite said. A grant, obtained through NASA, will finance the program for the first two years - $6,500 for the first year and $5,000 for the second year. The hope is to have school and community support after that.

"The hope is that the school can budget a little bit of it and possibly get donations and do fundraising as well," Braithwaite said. "It's so important to introduce kids to all these fields. It's such a great program, where everyone gets to do their own part."



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