When David Kreft arrived in the Belle Plaine School District, he thought there was something missing: an outlet for students interested in math, science and engineering.

This January, after months of preparation and recruiting, the tiny 1,400-student district will introduce a new varsity-letter activity: robotics.

Belle Plaine, which is so small that it has combined junior and senior high school, will join such giants as Edina, Eagan and Roseville as participants in the state robotics league as they vie for the title of state champion.

"We had a void," said Kreft, the principal of the combined junior and senior high school. "It's nice to be able to go after something like this."

After putting out a call for team members, the district has about 15 kids interested in participating, including several in seventh or eighth grade.

The team is going to be coached and led by the school's custodian, a man who Kreft said can fix anything.

"This is all new to us," said Jeff Heine, the coach/custodian. "I'm comfortable we can get our robot to perform ... but it's going to be a huge challenge."

The Belle Plaine kids and staff are being helped by the robotics team at Prior Lake High School, the defending state champions and one of the oldest robotics teams in the state.

Last month Prior Lake brought its award-winning robot to Belle Plaine to demonstrate what it could do, and perhaps entice people to sign up for the new robotics team.

Joe Passofaro, the Prior Lake team's adviser, said he can relate to what Belle Plaine is going through. Passofaro helped start the Prior Lake team seven years ago with no money from the district, no space to work in and a group of kids looking for an outlet for their science skills.

These days, the Prior Lake team competes all over the state. It also has gone to places like St. Louis to compete in the world championships.

There are now about 46 students on the Prior Lake team, and each year there are tryouts to make the team, just as there might be for the football, basketball or baseball teams.

"You have to earn your way onto the team," Passofaro said. "We're hoping that this is what all teams will come to."

Starting from scratch

For now, Belle Plaine is trying to figure out where they are going to build the robot and how they are going to raise the thousands of dollars it will cost to get the team, and the robot, up and running.

Like every other team in the state, Belle Plaine will pick up the robot kit in early January. Then it will have six weeks or so to build it and have it perform this year's challenge. Last year, for example, the goal was to shoot basketballs into a basket.

Heine said that one of the challenges his team will face is that it has no prior experience to draw upon, so it does not know yet what does or does not work for getting the robot to move or getting its arms to pick things up. "That's a huge advantage," said Heine, sounding very much like a varsity coach.

Kelly Smith, the Belle Plaine superintendent, said no matter what happens during the season the experience will serve the students well.

That is a sentiment shared by everyone connected to the endeavor, especially since the building project requires multiple skills ranging from creating the right motive power to calculating the angles and degrees needed to coordinate the actions of the robots.

There will also be spots on the team for students to plot out strategy, scout the opposition or serve on the pit crew to perform maintenance when the robot inevitably breaks down. All while in the midst of a heated competition.

"This is a jump-start for careers for students," Smith said. "These are applicable skills students can take with them."

Heron Marquez • 952-746-3281