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A robotics team in every school? Ayer Shirley students bring dream to governor


AYER — The Ayer Shirley Regional High School FIRST Robotics Team has launched an original initiative called MASSFIRST, the aim of which is to introduce FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) programs in school districts statewide.

If the MASSFIRST goal is accomplished, every public elementary school in Massachusetts will have a Lego League, which is the entry-level start of the FIRST program.

MASSFIRST is not only an unique undertaking, said Ayer Shirley head coach Christine Miska; it also creates a dual mission for the team, which is simultaneously working on the competitive project that is the focal point of the FIRST Robotics program at the high school level.

The FIRST Robotics process is complex as well as competitive and includes developing a game plan, strategy and defensive play, with goals and objectives spelled out in the game manual.

“That’s the level we’re at,” Miska explained during a Sunday morning session at the high school. “How to get to finals.”

Add MASSFIRST and it’s an ambitious agenda, Miska acknowledged, but the campaign is off to an auspicious start, having already caught the attention of Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker.

Founded by entrepreneur and Segway inventor Dean Kamen, FIRST is a nationwide movement that kicks in when kids start school with Lego League Jr. (grades K-3) Lego Leagues (for grades 4-8) and proceeds to the Tech Challenge and Robotics Competition at the middle and high school levels. These innovative after-school programs, typically with no public funds and as all-volunteer efforts, are aimed at sparking kids’ interest in science and technology, ultimately peopling the future high tech work force with capable hands and creative minds.

This includes the members of the Ayer Shirley FIRST Robotics Team. The team, now in its third year, meets frequently, including weekends, with its members, mentors and coaches, devoting many hours during the academic year to planning, designing and building the project they will take to this year’s competitions. The team is a family affair for Miska, an engineer at BAE Systems whose two kids and husband, an electrician, are all on board. With 45 student members and 28 adults, she pointed out that the Ayer Shirley volunteer component is extremely encouraging.

“It’s a real community effort,” she said. And the students are motivated and enthusiastic. Some seem to have found their niche, if not their future calling, in this unique extracurricular activity, she said, noting how the program brings out leadership qualities and hones skills in other areas such as business acumen and public speaking.

Last year’s team won awards with its entry: Andromeda One, a robotic heavy-lifter that, when mounted on a wheeled cart, can be driven around to pick up and move large items, from luggage to trash barrels.

“They really worked hard,” said team mentor Maureen Kilcommins, who showed a visitor the finished product, now stored in an anteroom and minus its conveyance.

The current team hasn’t settled on a project yet and is still at the brainstorming stage.

At the recent Sunday morning meeting, members broke into sub-groups to talk strategy. One was devoted to the MASSFIRST initiative, Miska said.

While mapping out a MASSFIRST plan, (before the team came up with a name for it,) one challenge the group faced was identifying which school systems across the state do or don’t have FIRST programs now, Miska said, although they knew that 40 percent of Massachusetts communities do not. Next would be outreach, who to talk to, how to get the message across and engage others.

“They love it and want everyone to have the opportunity” to participate, she explained. After concluding that a piecemeal approach could be problematic, they sought large group venues to spread the word instead, including the Mass Superintendents Association Conference and at the STEM summit in Worcester, where the idea of becoming the first state to have FIRST programs in every public school system piqued the governor’s interest. Given a brief presentation window, team members had a chance to expand when Baker stepped out to talk to them, Miska said.

“Tell me about it, I’d like to know more,” he said.

Which they did, in a recent visit to the statehouse. Additionally, Blair Brown is scheduled to come to the school, Miska said, which will hopefully provide a boost for the team’s MASSFIRST campaign.

Explaining why they’d chosen to pitch Lego Leagues statewide, Miska said they are the least expensive of all the FIRST programs to launch. Any interested adult can be a mentor and there’s no pricey equipment to buy. A couple of basic Lego sets pretty much the only materials required to get started. By comparison, a robotics project takes serious investment and teams must include fundraising in their overall plan, said Miska.

Donations from local businesses have been a huge help, she said, along with grants from non-profits such as the Ayer Shirley Education Foundation. ASEF’s Maureen Kilcommins is one of the team’s mentors.

“We’re also grateful to ASRSD Superintendent Mary Malone for her support,” she said.

A strong science and technology proponent, Malone has added classes to the curriculum as part of a STEM pathway, Miska said. Although Malone could not find money in the school budget for the FIRST Robotics Team, she found other ways to help, such as allowing the team to meet at the school after hours and on weekends without incurring the cost of a custodian.

Some team members now coach elementary school Lego Leagues, Miska said. She mentioned a young man, a high school weight lifter, who works with fourth and fifth graders at Page Hilltop, across the way. And one quiet young women coaches kids at Lura A. White School in Shirley.

“It taught her she could be a leader,” Miska said.