For Robert Kronschnabel, the real draw to his students was the challenge. They weren't getting an easy formula that told them how to solve problems. They weren't told what would and wouldn't work. And they knew from the beginning that expectations were high.

"This competition is important because it says 'Do whatever you need to do to make it happen,'" said Kronschnabel, a math teacher at Irondale High School in New Brighton. "Instead, it says, 'Here's a box of motors and some aluminum parts and a footprint.' The students aren't used to that. They're used to the recipe, the formula, and they're not getting that."

As educators statewide push for better science and math education, the popularity of an international robotics competition has grown drastically among Minnesota high schools. The FIRST Robotics competition, where high school students build complicated robots to push a ball along and do other tasks, has 54 Minnesota teams this year, up from just two in 2006.

Area educators attribute the growth to dramatic fundraising by Minnesota technology companies desperate to encourage future engineers and a statewide push to improve science and technology education.

"It's a long-term investment," said Dr. Stephen Oesterle, senior vice president of medicine and technology for Medtronic, who pushed other companies to donate.

Later this month, more than 50 teams will meet for the first Minnesota regional at Williams Arena on the University of Minnesota campus.

"Even the football players and the popular kids at our school are like, 'Oh my gosh, how did you do this?'" said Callie Krummel, an Irondale junior. "Yeah, I built a robot in six weeks with the help of 10 other people. It's pretty darn cool."

Needing engineers

On a February afternoon, the robotics team from Minneapolis' Patrick Henry High School -- the "Herobotics" -- toiled in a work room at the Bakken Museum, a science education museum named after one of Medtronic's founders, Earl Bakken. After a pizza break, the team started figuring out how to attach an arm to the robot to control a 7-pound, 40-inch diameter inflatable ball.

"I really liked the idea of having to build, program and drive the robot," junior Guillermo Andrade said. "I want to be a computer programmer."

Junior Ashley Hart laughed about early challenges the team faced: "The first time we ran the robot, it just went crazy. We thought we had it under control, but it just went berserk and ran into the wall."

The competition started in New Hampshire in 1992. Now, it includes more than 1,500 teams from around the world. Founded by entrepreneur Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway, FIRST stands for "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology."

Teams that win their regional competitions get to go to the FIRST Championships in Atlanta's Georgia Dome.

In Minnesota, the program's quick growth is largely attributed to Minnesota technology companies that fund the teams, which need $6,000 each just to get in the door, as well as the efforts of Ken Rosen, an organizer who scoured the state for high school teams to compete.

Minnesota companies are providing more than $550,000 for teams statewide, which includes almost $100,000 from Medtronic and its foundation as well as $72,000 from Boston Scientific and $60,000 from the 3M Foundation.

"The issue is, of course, that there aren't enough graduates coming out of the U.S. colleges that are really interested in electrical and mechanical engineering," Oesterle said. "It starts in high school. When kids go to college, they have to have some sense that this is a really cool thing to do."

Investing in students

Statewide, the Minnesota Department of Education has also stepped up its funding of STEM classes -- or classes in science, technology, engineering and math. Over the 2006-07 and 2007-08 school years, the department has distributed a combined $4.4 million in grants to school districts for STEM programs.

Officials think that this focus might have made high school administrators more likely to approve teams at their schools.

"This is my 19th year in education, and I've never seen a program that has caused kids to become so fired up about something related to school," said Jim Lynch, a technology coordinator at Eagan High School who works with the school's robotics team, "Blue Twilight." "We have to push them out the door in the evening."

While the Eagan team toiled away one Sunday, Sen. Jim Carlson, DFL-Eagan, a mechanical engineer, stopped by to check things out. Carlson was so impressed that he stayed for two hours and is trying to arrange for the team and its robot -- the Al-uminator -- to visit the Senate Education Committee.

"I'm first an engineer," Carlson said. "And when I decided to go into politics, it's because I've been all over the world and seen how other countries are investing in their young people. We're falling way, way behind. ... When I went away from there, I was just rejuvenated. I can't even tell you -- I was so emotional, because this is what we need."

Emily Johns • 952-882-9056