Robotics programs gain popularity but funding lags behind

Apr 21, 2015

The Raptors' coach Tony McGinty (left) helps students make last-minute improvements to their robot.
Credit Aaron Selbig

The robotics team from Traverse City Central High School is headed to St. Louis this week to compete in the world championship of robotics. The Raptors earned their ticket with a surprise victory in the state championship.

Megan Kral is still processing that moment when the final scores were revealed and the Raptors robotics team knew it had won the state championship.

“I still feel like crying whenever I think about it," says Kral. "It was amazing and incredible and I was so proud of my team. I was so proud of what we were able to make together.”

It wasn’t supposed to happen for the upstart Raptors. The team’s coaches are unpaid. The materials needed to build their robot were mostly cobbled together by parents. And the $20,000 needed to keep the robotics program running every year comes from in-house fundraising and a few grants.

Kral says the disadvantage is pretty clear when the Raptors compete with teams from Detroit and Flint, many of whom are sponsored by General Motors.

“So they get to use all of the car software, all of the car engineering mentors (and) all of the car machinery," she says. "We could never do that.”

Lots of preparation

The robot, Epimetheus, must be broken down into pieces and placed in a special crate before being shipped to St. Louis.
Credit Aaron Selbig

The Raptors are getting ready for St. Louis this week. Their robot has to be broken down into pieces and a special crate has to be designed to get it safely to its destination. On top of that, there’s the logistics of getting the 34-member team to and from St. Louis, with a place for all of them to stay and, hopefully, something to eat.

Everything is being handled by parents and students.

“There’s a lot that this team does besides building robots," says team captain Colin Huls. "We have to manage our money. We have to take administrative roles in making sure that our team is organized and … ready to go to competition.”

Huls says the robot's name is Epimehteus. He was the little-known brother of Prometheus in Greek mythology.

“His main causes were afterthought and excuses," says Huls. "We decided to give the robot a bit of an ironic name. For it’s name, it is certainly the most successful we’ve ever had so the irony may have paid off there.”

Once Epimetheus is put back together in St. Louis, his job is pretty simple. With the help of his drivers, including Huls, he will attempt to stack six plastic crates on top of one another. For extra points, he can try to put a garbage can on top of the stack of crates and then – as if that’s not hard enough – he’ll insert a foam pool noodle into a hole cut into the garbage can.

Popular but underfunded

Both Traverse City high schools have robotics programs. And the feeder programs at the younger levels have grown rapidly, as well. This winter, the elementary school league had more than 20 teams.

Paul Soma is superintendent of Traverse City Area Public Schools. He says the district just doesn’t have a lot of money for programs like robotics.

“You know, our last bond that went down back in 2013, we had set aside some money for the robotics program within TCAPS and … it just didn’t happen at that time,” says Soma.

That money for robotics was part of a much larger $35-million-dollar bond package – one that was narrowly shot down by voters. Soma thinks a similar capital bond will be presented again in the next two years.

“It might actually be a blessing in disguise that there’s this much interest and folks will hopefully realize that if we have a little something in there for robotics, it’s worthy of our support,” he says.

The next generation of engineers

Megan Kral says the program has been life-changing for her. She plans to study electrical engineering at either Michigan Tech or the University of Southern California next fall. She hopes future generations of robot-builders will get the same opportunities she’s had.

“The next little girl who wants to be an engineer, who wants to work with robots, and doesn’t know that she can, doesn’t think that she can … doesn’t know that she wants to … I just hope that she finds out a little bit sooner than I did because that’s one of my biggest regrets … that I didn’t get into this sooner,” says Kral.

The Traverse City Central Raptors begin their quest for a world robotics championship Wednesday in St. Louis.