SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Frisbee-throwing robots ushered in a new initiative on Thursday morning designed to entice Maine students to pursue careers in science, engineering and technology.
At an event at Fairchild Semiconductor’s office in South Portland, students, teachers, businesspeople, politicians and a celebrity inventor gathered to celebrate the launch of the Robotics Institute of Maine.
The new organization, which will be housed within the Manufacturers Association of Maine, will focus on organizing and raising funds to increase the number of competitive robotics teams at Maine’s high schools, according to Jamee Luce, the institute’s new director.
“One of the challenges that we’re facing as a state is we need a long-term economic plan, and the way to do that is by attracting technology companies and startup companies to come here,” Luce said. “The only way we’re going to do that is if we have a highly skilled workforce. That’s one of the things that separates robotics experiences from other ones. It is hands-on, project-based learning that all of us are looking for to connect the theory [students] are learning in a classroom with a real-life experience.”
In the 2013 robotics competitions in Maine, there were approximately 455 Maine high school students who participated on 49 robotics teams, according to Luce.
The initiative’s goal is to double the number of students involved in competitive robotics to 1,000 in the next three years, Luce said. In order to achieve that, the institute will reach out to rural schools, provide training to teachers and connect the local business community and the teams by turning working scientists and engineers into mentors.
Fairchild Semiconductor provided $75,000 in seed funding for the first year to get the institute started. It has committed additional funding for the next two years, though at decreased amounts, according to Lisa Martin, executive director of the Manufacturers Association of Maine. Texas Instruments also has committed at least $10,000, Martin said.
Additional fundraising from the business community will enable the institute to help schools launch robotics teams, which can cost between $1,500 and $6,000.
Developing programs that will increase the number of scientists and engineers in the state is key, according to Corson “Corky” Ellis, founder and chairman of Kepware Technologies in Portland and a member of the new robotics institute’s board of directors.
“This is a big deal,” Ellis said. “We need to make schools and parents realize that if they have kids interested in math and science, that robotics is an exciting path to make them stay committed to that course.”
Kepware writes software that allows machinery on a manufacturing floor, for example, to communicate with Windows software in the control room. Students competing in today’s robotics competitions could be future Kepware employees.
“This is a perfect fertile ground for Kepware,” Ellis said, but added that recruitment is not why he’s involved with the robotics institute. “We need more engineers. Wright Express, Fairchild, Kepware, Idexx. They can’t find enough engineers. We need to double the number of kids going into engineering, and we believe robotics is a way to help make that happen.”
Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway and founder of the FIRST robotics competitions, traveled to Maine from his home in New Hampshire to speak at the event.
Kamen founded FIRST — For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology — in 1989. Its first robotics competition was held in 1992 with 23 teams. This year, its 23rd season, robotics teams from 29,000 schools in 69 countries competed, Kamen said.
Kamen calls it “positive competition” that helps everyone in the long run.
“It’s a win-win. Everyone that gets involved gets more out of it than they put into it,” he said. “These companies desperately need the next generation, and the schools desperately need kids to show up realizing it’s not just theoretical nonsense. … Kids, once they see a reason to learn something, they get passionate about it.”
Matthew Jacobs is one such student. Jacobs, 18, just finished his junior year at Brewer High School. This past year he joined the school’s first robotics team, dubbed Orange Chaos. The team won the rookie of the year award at the state robotics competition this past year.
“I like working with my hands,” Jacobs said, wearing a bright Orange Chaos T-shirt. “I like tinkering. It’s fun to use tools and build something from nothing, and to see it work, see it fail, and try to fix it.”
For Jacobs, participating on the robotics team helps prepare him to become an engineer, which he said has been his plan for a while.
Gov. Paul LePage attended the event, beginning his remarks with a zinger about the Legislature, which the day before had overrode his veto of the state budget.
“I have a challenge for you for next year,” he said, referring to the industries annual challenges, such as building a frisbee-throwing robot. “I would like you to create a robotic Legislature that can’t speak back.”
Following the laughter, LePage got serious and praised the new robotics initiative. He called it “a great thing for Maine.”
“This is the type of program to keep these kids inspired and develop the workforce of the future,” Gov. LePage said. “And I’m so happy to see businesses are getting engaged with education to make sure the most important asset the state of Maine has — our next generation — is properly developed.”