There’s still plenty of woodworking going on in Dan Lemieux’s Spruce Mountain High School classroom, but some of the more exciting classes are a bit more white-collar. They focus on math, engineering, physics and computer programming.
“Right now, programming is the one spot I think we need the most work,” Lemieux said.
He and his students will be showing off Bowser, their basketball-shooting robot, at the Lewiston-Auburn Mini Maker Faire on Saturday, Sept. 8. Bowser was built last year as the Spruce Mountain Area Robotics Team’s entry into the FIRST Robotics Competition regional and national contests.
They’ll be joined at the fair by FIRST Robotic teams from Messalonskee and Gardiner high schools.
Maine schools typically offer three levels of robotic competition. Middle-school students start out designing rudimentary plastic robots using the Lego Mindstorms system. That allows students to build Lego structures and automate them with special bricks — a programmable CPU, camera, sensor and motors — to create nimble toy robots. High schools start with Vex Robots, which are more expensive and much more complex. The Vex system includes programmable CPUS, motors, servos and sensors with metal frames. Students build their robots to complete tasks — launching tennis balls into a goal, for example, or stacking cubes — and then compete in regional contests.
“A teacher can buy a kit and create a team of eight or nine kids,” Lemieux said. “They can meet in a classroom after school or whenever and they work to solve a problem. It’s self-contained and done and it’s not a huge commitment.”
FIRST Robotics is the ultimate for student competitors in Maine. Like the Vex contests, teams build special robots designed to complete special tasks. The robots are much larger, however.
“FIRST is a humongous, major undertaking,” Lemieux said. “It takes huge resources and huge people. I devoted 37 Saturdays, Sundays and vacation days last year on the First Robotics Challenge.”
This year’s FIRST challenge was to build a robot that could pick up and accurately shoot a basketball while navigating obstacles and bridges. Maine had 10 teams in the challenge, and three of them will be at the fair Saturday: Team Infinite Loop from Messalonskee High School in Oakland, the Iron Tigers from Gardiner High School and SMART Robotics from Jay.
“It takes the resources a community has and revamps it and reuses it for technology and the high-tech industries,” Lemieux said. “It’s about STEM education — science, technology, engineering and math. That’s where the jobs are going to be in the future and what we need to teach our kids.”
Lemieux said he hopes the displays will inspire more teams around Maine. The Androscoggin Bank Colisee will host the regional event next spring. He expects it will draw more than 40 robotic teams from around the world.