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VIEWPOINT: Robotics serves as an example of district mission in action

Our high school robotics teams recently competed in the Minnesota North Star Regional competition. All of our high school teams have enjoyed various successes in the past. This year East Ridge took first place and is moving on to national competition. If you have never attended a robotics event, I would encourage you to observe one of the most unique activities our high school students participate in as a school-sponsored team. Robotics is an outstanding example of how to provide real-life problem-solving situations to students that push their intellect while sparking their interest and passion for engineering and computer programing through collaboration and teamwork.

The extraordinary pride and excitement our students display when their robot does what it was built to do is what every educator and parent strives to see in their students and children. For many students this is their first experience with engineering and computer programing. For some the experience will be the impetus for their future career choice. For others it will be a memory they will carry for many years to come. The program is one of many examples of ways we are living up to our mission of igniting a passion for lifelong learning.

To give you some perspective, the annual challenge is to build a robot that can complete a number of complex tasks in a certain amount and in a limited competition space, while competing against other robots trying to do the same thing. Each robot is trying to secure needed materials, complete a certain task or navigate an obstacle faster and better than the other robots. Teams score points for the tasks they are able to complete, the level of difficulty they achieved while trying not to lose points for technique violation and penalties. Prior to the season beginning, the team members have no idea what the tasks and challenges their robot will be asked to complete. The materials for the robot arrive with the instruction on what the competition tasks will be for the season. The students then need to determine from the raw materials how to build a robot that can do what is required.

Teamwork is an important element in the preparation for the events, but also during the competition. Each team needs to work well together and maximize the expertise of each member in order to build the robot fast enough to be ready for the tournaments, and at the same time making sure the robot will consistently perform the tasks required. A unique and wonderful aspect of the tournaments is the collaboration and teamwork between schools. If a team is having a problem with their robot, it is commonplace to see team members from other schools working with a rival team to help them solve their problems. The culture of the event is to help everyone as if every robot was your robot. There is no joy when a team has problems or has to withdraw from the competition. The students are not happy unless everyone has the chance to do their best. Make no mistake, every team wants to win and is competitive, but they only want to win when they are the best team, not because another team is competing at less than 100 percent. During the competition, teams can form alliances to work together to score more points or to block other teams from completing tasks or scoring points.

For many years, we have been fortunate to have the support of 3M for statewide funding of the program and for help with supporting our team sponsors. 3M allows their employees to take a certain percentage of time away from their normal duties to volunteer in the community. In the past, many of our volunteers have been engineers from 3M. These dedicated professionals bring the expertise needed to help our students design and build the robot. While there are a number of sponsors, our most recent financial support came from Northern Tier Energy and the St. Paul Park Refinery. We are grateful for the partnership and support from these companies. They make the robotics team possible and they have helped create the ability for us to ignite a passion in our students for engineering, design, computer programing, physics and other elements that go into successfully designing and building a functioning robot. Congratulations to all of our robotics team members.

Keith Jacobus is superintendent of South Washington County Schools.