MINNEAPOLIS — An explosion in the popularity of high school robotics teams has suddenly made it chic to be geek.
Robotics team members are getting varsity letters and patches, being paraded before school assemblies like other sports stars, and seeing trophies in the same lobby display cases as their football, basketball or baseball counterparts.
“It’s the new kid on the block,” said Dawn Nichols, head of school at Convent of the Visitation Catholic School in Mendota Heights, which has the only all-girls robotics team in Minnesota.
A telling statistic: For the first time ever, there are more varsity robotics teams than there are boys’ varsity hockey teams in the state. There are 156 high school boys’ hockey teams and 180 robotics teams, up from 153 last year, according to the Minnesota State High School League.
While boys’ and girls’ high school basketball teams remain the most common with more than 400 teams each, no other sport or activity has grown as quickly as robotics, which began with just two teams in 2006 and will likely surpass 200 soon.
“Minnesota is becoming a mecca for robotics,” said Joe Passofaro, one of the mentors/coaches for the Prior Lake High School robotics team, which won the state championship last year. “We’re getting a group here that is coming onto the world scene.”
Minnesota last year became the first state in the country to sanction a state tournament and championship for robotics teams. Teams compete by building robots to perform specific tasks — shooting basketballs last year, throwing Frisbees this year — and then seeing whose works the best.
“Robotics is really a different way for kids getting into sports,” said Lauren Woolwine, 17, a member of the Edina High School robotics team, the Green Machine. “Now that we have a state tournament it’s easier to relate to people. People really relate to state tournaments and championships.”
The High School League said changing perceptions were part of the reason its board decided to elevate robotics to the varsity level, complete with a state tournament in May and team championship trophies.
“You go into a robotics competition and it just draws you in,” Nichols said. “The feeling is as palpable as any other sports competition.”
Mark Lawrence, who helped start the Edina team in 2006, said varsity recognition is only going to help robotics grow, while also helping to change how the participants are perceived.
“You walk into the lobby cases and there are the trophies,” Lawrence said. “It shows that we are part of the school fabric.”
Lawrence, Passofaro and others point out that there are also hundreds of non-varsity robotics teams in middle and elementary schools, bringing the total number of kids participating on robotics teams to more than 4,600.
“The growth is terribly impressive, especially compared to other activities that have been around for years and have worldwide followings,” said Amy Doherty, who is with the high school league. “It seems like (robotics) is something that every school would want to be involved in.”
The University of Minnesota is already starting to see ripple effects. In 2008, two years after the first robotics teams appeared, 12 students with robotics team experience enrolled at the university’s College of Science and Engineering. Last year that number had grown to 76.
Also, the first state robotics tournament was held on the university campus at Williams Arena, allowing hundreds of potential new students and their parents to experience the Twin Cities campus, said Steve Crouch, dean of the College of Science and Engineering.
Four weeks ago, the season kicked off when the robot kits were delivered to the teams. Since then, teams, which can be as small as two people and as large as 50 or more, have been working feverishly to develop the best mechanisms to meet this year’s challenge: having the robot toss Frisbees through openings.
The kits cost $5,000 apiece, which is the biggest obstacle to the growth of robotics. Starting a team and keeping it going costs about $10,000 a year, including the kit and additional parts to improve it. Although robotics is now a varsity sport, it is still treated financially as an activity and not budgeted for by districts.
Belle Plaine, for example, started a robotics team this year but is relying on donations to come up with the kit price and related expenses.
Also, robotics teams are so relatively new that most schools don’t have places for the teams to practice, work, design or test their creations.
“We built our first robot in a barn,” Passofaro recalled, noting that most varsity teams have fields, diamonds or courts at their schools.
That too appears to be slowly changing. On Jan. 24, Convent of the Visitation opened a new 4,000-square-foot building dedicated to science, technology, engineering and math. The building, complete with a fully stocked workshop, also will be used to house the Robettes, the robotics team.
“It was absolutely intentional,” said Nichols, who until now has been renting space in downtown St. Paul for the robotics team. “We wanted to bring them back to campus, to have the team feel and be more part of the school.”