AUGUSTA, Maine — Building a robot that rebounds basketballs is no small task, but for 15-year-old Dakota Condon and her friends from Messalonskee High School, it was all in good fun.
The school’s Infinite Loop Robotics team isn’t part of any class, and the students receive nothing in return for their dedication other than the fulfilling nature of problem-solving and the personal satisfaction of seeing the results of their hard work actually function.
“I loved so much about working with the machinery,” Condon said as the mobile rebounding machine sucked up basketballs and lobbed them to folks in the crowd. “It also serves as a great incentive to keep up with your schoolwork. If you fail a quarter, you can’t be on the team.”
The merits of STEM education — which stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics — have been widely touted in recent years as businesses and governments struggle to keep up with an increasingly technology-driven world, and Maine is no exception. Gov. Paul LePage and Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen promote STEM education aggressively as part of their education reform ideas, which were spelled out explicitly earlier this year in a strategic plan released by the Department of Education.
Condon and dozens of other students from Jay, Farmington, Oakland and Falmouth gathered with LePage and Bowen Tuesday in the State House to demonstrate their robots and tout the merits of STEM education. LePage, in turn, presented the first-ever Governor’s Promising STEM Youth Awards.
According to Condon, her team’s biggest challenges didn’t come during the design and building stages, but later during troubleshooting. With a regional robotics competition in Boston just hours away, the team found itself using frantic tune-up time to rebuild major parts of their machine. In the competition, it worked.
“It was a great confidence booster,” Condon said. “Going through that sort of thing is just good for you.”
LePage agreed that teamwork and problem solving were two valuable side effects of the robotics projects undertaken by the students.
“Beyond just STEM, you are proving something else to yourselves: that you’re able to work in a group and you’re able to share knowledge,” LePage said to the students. “By sharing the knowledge that each of you brings to the table, you become profoundly strong as a unit. That’s what’s going to make you so powerful and successful as you move forward.”
LePage stressed that technical skills and anyone who has them will be top-tier contributors to the future economy.
“You’re the people who are going to build our bridges, design our buildings, solve our energy needs and run our computer networks,” he said. “You are the future of this state, make no mistake about that. You will be moving our state forward.”
George Hogan, vice president of Wright Express, a technology-driven firm in South Portland, agreed.
“These are exactly the types of skills that will drive our country and businesses to the next level as we compete globally,” Hogan said. “Today, virtually every country in the world is trying to reinvent themselves. … They’re using technology to reinvent themselves every five years. The STEM disciplines play a huge role in that endeavor.”
LePage presented awards to three robotics teams who participated in the FIRST Robotics World Championships in St. Louis two months ago. The teams included the “SMART” robotics team from Spruce Mountain High School in Jay; the “Sunnyside Up” team from elementary and middle schools in the Farmington area; and the “Infinite Loop” team from Messalonskee High School in Oakland. Teams from Mount Desert Island and South Portland also participated in the competitions, but were unable to attend Tuesday’s ceremonies.
Other honorees included Taylor Rogers of Dixmont and Ma Wei Feng of Portland, who will participate in the National Youth Science Camp in West Virginia this summer; and “The Paper Planes,” a Falmouth High School team who in April competed in the Real World Design Challenge in Washington, D.C.
Some of the students at the State House Tuesday said they fully intend to pursue STEM careers. Some of them indicated they might put their educations to use here in Maine. Nick Ferguson of Sidney and Derek Caron of Oakland, both seniors at Messalonskee High School in Oakland, said they intend to study chemical engineering and computer engineering, respectively, at the University of Maine.
“STEM is important to me personally because I really want a greener Earth,” Ferguson said. “I want to go into renewable energy and help society invest in new types of energy.”
Caron said he wants to someday design medical robotics systems, though they’ll have to be far more precise than the basketball rebounder he helped design this year.
“The experience I got from this is something that can follow me for a long time,” he said. “If you’d talked to me in middle school, I never thought I’d do anything like this. We built a robot from the ground up. With this stuff, your mind is the only limit.”