Minnesota boasts some of the nation’s top high school robotics teams. And when their spring competition season fell victim to the COVID-19 pandemic, they didn’t whine or complain.
Instead, they jumped into the fight against the novel coronavirus, turning their engineering skills to designing and manufacturing personal protective gear for nurses, doctors and first responders across Minnesota and beyond.
“I’m always amazed at what happens when you get these young kids together. They knock it out of the park,” said Jeremy Culleton, a Warroad High School teacher and mentor for the school robotics team.
Warroad’s team is among many in northwest Minnesota that are churning out items such as visors, face shields and “ear savers,” which are small plastic pieces that relieve pressure caused by the elastic bands on face masks.
Other northwest Minnesota teams involved include Greenbush Middle River, Badger, Thief River Falls, Hallock and Stephen-Argyle. They may be among Minnesota’s smallest schools, but they’re stepping up big in the crisis.
“Usually you’re competing,” said Mary Anderson, a Greenbush Middle River science teacher and team mentor. “Now it’s for a common good.”
Said her husband, Russ Anderson, also a team mentor: “You’re all together. It’s kind of like filling sandbags [in a flood]. You’re just doing your part.”
In the corner of the state near North Dakota and Canada, local companies are also getting involved, helping with supplies, advice and manufacturing. Marvin, a major window manufacturer based in Warroad, and Polaris Inc., which has a factory in Roseau, are among those assisting the robotics teams.
Tereza Hruba, a graduating Warroad senior, has been “living in my basement” for several weeks, she said, running 3-D printers to make face shields. Hruba found plans online, then modified them to work with her equipment.
“It is a lot of fun to change things and make [them] better,” she said. Warroad and the other teams have provided protective gear for area police agencies and medical staff and are also sending gear to Grand Forks, N.D., which had a major COVID-19 outbreak last month.
Perhaps the biggest operation is being run by the KnightKrawler team from Irondale High School in New Brighton, whose members churned out more than 15,000 visors and face shields, running 10 hours a day, six days a week all through April. Stratasys Ltd., Toro Co. and 3M donated materials for the team’s work, and they’ve sent gear throughout Minnesota as well as to Missouri, Arizona and Oregon.
“It’s kind of mind-boggling to me — how the hell do you get that many orders coming into a robotics team’s website?” said Scott Davis, a software developer and team mentor. “But that’s what happened.”
In Babbitt, the Iron Mosquitos team converted a T-shirt cannon into a grocery bot. The students made the modifications in an afternoon, said Ryan Lindsay, a teacher at the St. Louis County school. Of Babbitt High’s roughly 90 students, 20 are on the robotics team.
“It’s not the most beautiful creation, but it’s functional and it’s pretty impressive that they got it done in just a few hours,” Lindsay said. The bot carries grocery orders from store to car and has been running since shortly after Gov. Tim Walz ordered public schools closed in mid-March.
“We’re not going to save the world, we know that,” said Mary Anderson. “But if we can save one person, or keep a loved one from getting sick, isn’t that something?
“This is what Minnesota does.”