The most popular extracurricular activity at Ayer Shirley Regional High School is not a sport, nor a performing art nor student government.
The Panthers' robotics program is one of the most successful science clubs in the state, and have advanced to the World Championships every year of their existence.
The 5-year-old program, Andromeda One, has grown in membership and in success since its launch in the fall of 2013. Now 65 members strong, the club has garnered substantial sponsorship from several influential high-tech companies. Boston Scientific is a "platinum sponsor" that has supported Andromeda One (National club number, 4905) since its inception.
Participation in the program earns the members a varsity letter and prepares them for collegiate level engineering studies, according to head coach Christine Miska. "Seventy-eight percent of 4905 alumni are pursuing STEM in college," she wrote, also touting a 94 percent retention rate.
The club begins in the fall, mostly by assigning duties; of both the students as well as the two dozen mentors who volunteer. The mentors, like the students, are of diverse backgrounds including one-third female and work as professionals in STEM. "No 3D printed parts are made by mentors," Miska iterated. "Only the students design and print the components."
The robots are loosely ideated in the fall but specific design does not happen until the "unveiling" in early January.
A two-month competition season begins, which is a series of brief and rotating partnerships with other teams, The "coopertition," as it is referred to, features the satisfactory completion of an assigned task. Last year, the challenge was for the robots to lift, carry, maneuver and stack milk crates. All of the clubs are part of the international non-profit, FIRST (First Inspirational and Recognition of Science and Technology). FIRST is a Manchester, New Hampshire-based organization founded by Dean Kamen in 1989.
With nearly 40,000 teams worldwide, the parallel mission of FIRST is to teach "gracious professionalism" along with teamwork and engineering. Another area team, Chelmsford-based Merrimack Valley Robotics, has also advanced to the world championship in recent years.
The mentors are a vital cog in the machine. Bill Walter is an electrical engineer at Analog Devices who volunteers at Andromeda One
"I joined four years ago and it's a blast," he said. "I really like the challenge of trying to build a successful robot. It's great to watch the kids do this stuff. It's very rewarding. I would've loved having this when I was a kid."
Sophomore Sean Doyle hopes to follow in the tracks of his older brother, Will, who piloted the Andromeda One team's robot for four years. Will is currently a freshman at Yale, studying of course engineering. Their father Patrick is a long-time mentor. "Mentors are very valuable beyond the technical guidance," said Miska, an electrical engineer at BAE. "They serve as role models. And, the more mentors we have, the more sponsors we get."