Corrie Hester was reluctant to get into robotics last fall when her parents wanted to start a neighborhood team in Lakeville.
"I thought, 'This is going to be terrible,' " she said.
As her team learned the nuts and bolts of robotics, however, Corrie was increasingly enthusiastic. By season's end, the rookie team — called Polar Vortex — was winning accolades, including a seventh-place finish at the FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) state robotics tournament.
"I surprised myself," said Hester, a freshman at Lakeville North. "And now I love it."
Across Minnesota, the popularity of robotics is on the rise as more students are exposed to it. With society's emphasis on the value of science and technology, coaches and students say robotics provides a hands-on way to explore those fields, plus engineering and math.
"Schools are teaching all the bits and pieces of STEM, but they don't really have the infrastructure to put it all together," said Scott McDowell, an engineer and Polar Vortex mentor. "[Robotics] does that very well."
There are four levels of robotics competitions developed by FIRST Robotics, the national organizing body, from a Junior Lego League for elementary school students to the FIRST Robotics Competition for grades 9-12.
All have experienced growth in popularity in the past decade, including the FTC program to which Polar Vortex belongs. That program, geared toward grades 7-12, went from 36 teams in 2012 to 106 teams last year, said Cheryl Moeller, executive director of High Tech Kids, which organizes FTC tournaments.
And the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) began a partnership with FIRST Robotics, the high school program, in 2012. Minnesota began holding a robotics tournament that year, the first state in the country to do so.
"I think it's popular for a number of reasons," said Amy Doherty, the MSHSL robotics state tournament manager. "It can tap a different group of kids than our already existing activities."
More than robots
From September through May, the Polar Vortex team gathers three or four times a week in the Hesters' Lakeville basement to plan, build and collaborate. Darren and Nichole Hester are the coaches.
This year's team is made up of five girls and three boys; all but two of them are freshmen at Lakeville North. Unlike most teams, they aren't sponsored by the school. But they can compete by registering through FIRST Robotics.
The coaches guide the students, but don't build the robot for them, Darren Hester said. McDowell and Maureen Carrigan, both engineers, serve as mentors.
"The value of the program is letting the kids figure it out," Hester said.
The centerpiece of the team's efforts is a robot programmed to perform different tasks, depending on the engineering challenge issued by FIRST Robotics. Last year, the bot had to travel up and down ramps, picking up balls along the way and dropping them in a tube to score points.
But team members point out that robotics isn't just about building and programming a machine.
"There's a lot more than just the robot," said Bella Vandenbos, a freshman team member. "Before this, I could not work with people to save my life."
Now, the team works together well, like a family, she said.
Team members also raise money — last year, the Hesters covered most of the $8,000 it cost to have a team — participate in community service, create a business plan and manage social media accounts.
By the time team members graduate from high school, they hope to make it to the world finals, held annually in St. Louis.
But Hester said the important lessons are learned along the way. "It is 100 percent about the journey," he said.