SOUTH PORTLAND – The Robotics Institute of Maine, founded last October as part of the business services division of the Manufacturers Association of Maine, got a big boost last week from Gov. Paul LePage and nationally acclaimed inventor Dean Kamen.

A $75,000 donation from Fairchild Semiconductor also didn’t hurt.

Using the Fairchild funding, which continues in declining amounts for the next three years, as well as a $10,000 donation from Texas Instruments, the new Robotics Institute aims to double participation in high school robotics teams from about 455 students statewide, to more than 1,000 by 2016. The program will be based at the Manufacturers Association of Maine in Westbrook.

“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,” said Robotics Institute Director Jamee Luce, at a June 27 kickoff event, held at Fairchild’s South Portland campus and attended by LePage and Kamen. “The only way we’re going to do that is if we have a highly skilled workforce.”

The Robotics Institute will support three competitive programs, FIRST Robotics founded in 1989 by Kamen, best known for the Segway scooter the FIRST Lego League for younger students, and the VEX Robotics Competition.

The latter is a comparatively less expensive program to FIRST, where the cost of a single robot can run upward of $6,000 and that does not count the value of more than 95 adult mentors and volunteers who aided students last year, contributing an average of 30 to 50 hours each. The smaller VEX robots generally cap out at $1,500.

Both programs, however, share the mission embodied in FIRST’s name “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.” The idea, said Kamen, was to get students out of the classroom and into the workshop, where they might find practical applications for their studies.

“Kids, once they see a reason to learn something, they get passionate about it,” he said.

“These companies desperately need the next generation,” said Kamen, making a sweeping gesture to the corporate executives gathered for last week’s announcement. “And the schools, they desperately need kids to show up realizing it’s not just theoretical nonsense.

“It’s a win-win. Everyone that gets involved [in robotics competitions] gets more out of it than they put into it,” said Kamen.

In recent years, Kamen’s theory has filtered back into the classroom, where the buzzword has been STEM an acronym for “Science, Technology, Engineering and Math” as schools have begun to employ a more hands-on approach as they work to prepare students for the jobs of the future. Both Fairchild and Texas Instruments have donated heavily to STEM programs at area high schools, particularly in their home base of South Portland.

Still, there has been little to compare with the robotics programs, which between FIRST and VEX saw more than 85,000 student participants worldwide last year.

“That’s one of the things that separates the robotics experience from other ones,” said Luce. “It is hands-on, project-based learning that all of us are looking for to connect the theory and learning in a classroom with a real-life experience.”

LePage drew a big laugh, on the day after legislators passed a biennial state budget over his veto, by challenging students to “create a robotic Legislature . . . one that can’t speak back.”

Although Kamen countered that such miracles are beyond the bounds of current science, LePage nonetheless extolled the new Robotics Institute as “a great thing for Maine.”

“This is the type of program to keep these kids inspired and develop the workforce of the future,” the governor 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.”

“As a tech company, our future depends upon being able to hire young people with skills in engineering and technology,” said Fairchild’s senior director for product development, Bryan Peter. “We have staff members that are devoted coaches and mentors and we fund these programs because we want students to have a fun, hands-on experience that will lead them to learn more.

“Any Maine company looking to invest in technology job training should look at RIM [the Robotics Institute of Maine] first,” said Peter.

Perhaps making the point as well as anyone during the June 27 event was Jaime Reinhold. A 2007 graduate of South Portland High School, Reinhold parlayed her experience on the school’s robotics team, known as “The Riot Crew,” into a master’s degree in electrical engineering at the University of Maine. Today, she is a product engineer at Analog Devices in Wilmington, Mass.

“When I was in high school I didn’t really know what I wanted to do,” said Reinhold. “It wasn’t until I joined the robotics team that I realized, this is a lot of fun you get to play with all these toys, and make projects out of them and learn a lot in the process.”

In her job, Reinhold works on computer chips that act as analog to digital converters. In other words, she’s the reason the X-ray machine at your local hospital can convert its image into something the computer can read to make a picture doctors can view and manipulate.

“The robotics team helped me earn a scholarship through FIRST Robotics to attend college,” said Reinhold. “That was really important, because college is so expensive. But just as important was the team aspect of it. It definitely trained me for functioning in the workplace better than the classroom.

“In class,” said Reinhold, “you get homework assignments that usually have only one right answer. But when you’re out in the workforce, something doesn’t necessarily have a right answer, it only has a better answer. So, when you’re working on a robot, or a real problem, there are lots of answers to the same problem.”

As she spoke, Reinhold pointed across the Fairchild parking lot, to where LePage and Kamen were touring robots built by area high school students. Some, built for the most recent FRIST competition, worked under guided and autonomous motion to hurl a Frisbee through a small gate located about 50 feet away, and 10 feet in the air. Others, built for the VEX meets, worked to pile the most beanbags into a trough or, failing that, to steal away beanbags belonging to another robot.

“As you can see, everybody’s robot looks different,” said Reinhold, “but they’re all solving the same game problem, and every team does it in their own way to combine a wide array of ideas into one functional thing.”

That, says Luce, is what robotics is all about, particularly given assertions made by Kamen and Peter that for high-tech companies, as in real estate, it’s all about location, location, location. The location, or state, those firms want to be in, they said, is any place where they can find a solid base of quality workers.

“In addition to teaching the engineering, math and programming skills which are vital to Maine businesses seeking new employees, robotics competitions also teach collaboration, communication and program management important skills for any employee to have,” said Luce. “Through the Robotics Institute of Maine, we can ensure that all Maine students can be involved who want to be.”

Gov. Paul LePage, center, and inventor Dean Kamen, far right, were in South Portland last week to announce the creation of the Robotics Institute of Maine, a new effort to boost technology education in Maine. The program will be based at the Manufacturers Association of Maine in Westbrook. Staff photo by Duke Harrington 

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