Donations lead to approval of robotics program in school district

Princeton School Board members, in a 5-2 vote, have approved a robotics program as an extracurricular activity at the district’s high school and middle school.
Details on whether the middle school will run the program were not clear at the end of the Aug. 19 meeting when the board approved robotics as an activity. Superintendent Julia Espe said she was pretty sure the middle school would be having it.
Middle school Principal Dan Voce had said earlier that he was hoping the robotics program would be run at his school.
To date, eight students at the high school have indicated interest in the program.
Part of the impetus for adopting robotics as an after-school activity was the donation of $2,000 each from Glenn Metalcraft in Princeton and Pellco Machine, in St. Michael. The owners of both companies, Joe Glenn and Randy Pelletier, respectively, live in Princeton.
School Board Members Howard Vaillancourt and Chuck Nagle voted no on the motion to approve the robotics extracurricular activity, while members Deb Ulm, Chad Young, Craig Johnson, Eric Minks and Jeremy Miller voted yes.
Vaillancourt explained that he preferred activity proposals be run through community education first before launching it at a school. Soccer and hockey enthusiasts had to first get booster clubs going before they could get those sports approved for the district, Vaillancourt reasoned.
Nagle, asked for comment after the meeting why he voted no, said he didn’t like the idea that just being offered a donation could bring about the startup of a high school activity and that he didn’t think it was thoroughly thought out and planned enough. Also, how the robotics activity would be maintained and sustained in future years was not addressed, Nagle said.
Johnson responded during the meeting to Vaillancourt’s objections, by saying, “This is a new day and new subject matter,” and that a different board was hearing the proposal. Johnson agreed with Princeton High School Activities Director Darin Laabs in his presentation on the proposal that a robotics program would be very educational for its participants.
Laabs explained how a robotics program has students working as a team during a six-month robotics season to build a robot from a kit to perform a specific task. In the process the students use many academic disciplines including science, technology, engineering and math, which are the subjects in STEM programs.
Schools can enter their robots in robotics competitions, and that is why the kits are all the same. The competitions have regulations or limitations that the robots must be built within. Some leeway is left within those boundaries where the students can be creative to try to make their robot perform better than others.
Laabs said the district will be responsible for $4,649 in wages and $705 in benefits, with travel costs yet to be determined to run the program for a season. The student fee would be $100 per participant.
After the board meeting, Glenn and Pelletier told the Union-Eagle that they are hoping that, through something like this, the local schools can better prepare students who are interested in fields involving robotics to have the needed skills to get such jobs after leaving high school.
Glenn called a robotics program like this a “first step” toward what he would like to see being taught in high schools and that is a “full-blown industrial robotics program.” Glenn noted that his business, which is located in Princeton’s main industrial park, has six robots and that businesses like his need people skilled in programming and maintaining robots and setting up the cells, or environments around each robot.
Pelletier said he has been unsuccessful of late hiring someone for a machinist position at his business, indicating that there are not enough people with the skills needed for the job.
Pelletier also said that, as a member of the Central Minnesota Manufacturers Association, he has helped support robotics programs in St. Cloud schools. He mentioned that he was at a meeting with Espe, Richard Prescott with Glenn Metalcraft, and someone from St. Cloud Technical and Community College to talk about the program. It was there, he said, that he declared that he would be willing to buy a robotics kit for the Princeton School District if the district implemented a robotics extracurricular activity.
“It’s a great program,” Pelletier said. Not only do participating students learn about the technical subjects, but they also learn about teamwork and problem solving, which are both needed in the ‘real world,’” he said.