The Free Press, Mankato, MN

St. Peter news

May 13, 2012

Robotics coach gunning for grant, exposure

ST PETER — Coming off of another successful robotics season, the St. Peter team is starting to think bigger.

Coach Deb Johnson is writing a grant for $20,000 to rent a practice space that all 21 robotics teams in southern Minnesota could use to learn from each other, as well as a place to bring in low-income students and others who don’t have access to advanced science, technology, engineering and math lessons.

The Blue Cross Blue Shield “Connect for Health Challenge” grant would also go to transportation costs and educational materials, among other things, Johnsons said.

“Who knows if we’ll get it or not, but we’re certainly going to try,” she said.

The main idea, she said, is to create a “geek area” where kids can come and explore STEM with robotics team members, team mentors and the professionals with whom the team works during its robotics season, including physics professors, engineers and machinists.

The team plans to use Johnson Hall on the Nicollet County Fairgrounds. The team would rent the space for six weeks during robot-building season, which begins in January. Johnson hopes to use the space for teaching purposes beyond the robotics season. St. Peter High School also will continue to be used as a teaching space, Johnson said.

“I definitely think it’s a good idea,” said sophomore Andrew Stelter, who is finishing up his first year on the team. “We built a model of part of the field in the shop and we used that to practice, and that was really good. If we could have a regulation setup, and we could use that, it would probably be a lot more effective.”

For the past 12 years, Johnson said she and her robotics team has been reaching out to kindergarten through eighth-graders to teach them about STEM and how it relates to robotics. The grant would help expand that outreach, both geographically and demographically.

Stelter said he’d be interested in working with younger students. But he still has a lot to learn about engineering, too.

“I’m still learning a lot about it by being part of this,” he said.

The grant would be helpful, Johnson said. But the plan to reach more students and to collaborate with other area teams will go forward with our without it.

Johnson said Twin Cities robotics teams have the advantage of being in close proximity to each other and to major corporate sponsors. In southern Minnesota, the teams are disconnected geographically.

“I want to play a role in getting us all connected,” she said.

Some area robotics teams are small but strong, she said, having been competing in robotics for years. Bringing the teams to St. Peter to share knowledge and skills would make all of them stronger and greatly benefit rookie teams, she said.

“We certainly want to be competitive, but I think the learning is what we want to focus on,” she said.

The next robotics season begins Jan. 5, but organizers are planning a fall event in November to bring all the teams to St. Peter High School for a practice event using last year’s robots. With or without the grant money, workshops will be held in electrical and mechanical design, among other things.

“We’re going to make this happen some way or another,” Johnson said. “We need to do this. The kids need it. The mentors need it. And I just want to make sure we’re supporting and collaborating with all the teams down here.”

The grant is due Monday, and Johnson expects to know by summer if the St. Peter team will get the funds.

Area robotics teams will compete once more this season at the Minnesota State High School League state tournament May 18-19 at Williams Arena in Minneapolis.

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