Providence Academy’s FIRST Robotics Team prepares students for futures in STEM.
Robotics is just like any other varsity sport at Providence Academy. Each winter, a team of around 15 students join forces to build a dishwasher-size robot capable of competing in a predetermined game of skills. For two hours most weekday afternoons (and a good chunk of Saturdays), students gather in a metal shop to create their robot as part of Providence Academy’s FIRST Robotics Team 4511.
“It’s easier to say I don’t meet Friday/Sunday,” says Maggie Ludlow, a 2023 Providence Academy graduate and longtime robotics team member.
Long recognized by major universities, FIRST Robotics Competition is put on by the international youth organization FIRST. The competition provides an opportunity to dig into science and engineering, with the organization reporting that 81 percent of alumni declare a STEM major in college. Many participants also have the chance at scholarship opportunities tied to FIRST.
At Providence Academy, Upper School physics and engineering teacher Mike Plucinski helped found the robotics team during his first year at the school in 2012. Since then, the team has developed and expanded, with two new faculty members with mechanics and physics backgrounds joining this past season to support and mentor students.
From kickoff day in January—when the competition is unveiled and teams are given their game manual—to competition day in early March, students work together to strategize, research, prototype and test their robot.
“We go from sketches on the whiteboard with pro [and] con lists to a functioning robot in two months, which is really amazing. And it’s fun. It’s a lot of fun,” Ludlow says. “I really like the team experience. Knowing that this is not a one-person project, it’s going to take all 15 of us to get this to work.”
Though many students come into robotics with engineering or mechanical skills, no prior experience is needed. “As long as you have an interest and a want to be down there, we’ll take you and make this happen,” Plucinski says. For less experienced students, upperclassmen and school staff take on the role of mentor and support skill development.
Ludlow has been working on robots since seventh grade, when she joined the school’s middle school robotics team. “I wanted to build robots,” Ludlow says. “[I had] no previous experience, but I was really excited because I love all things robot-related, and then I got to do it for real!”
Plucinski shares that many of his robotics students over the years have gone on to enroll in prestigious engineering programs around the country at schools such as Carnegie Mellon University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), University of Minnesota and University of Notre Dame. Ludlow is currently enrolled at MIT to study mechanical engineering with a goal to continue to work on robots in her career.
“It’s definitely a proud moment on my side, too, to see the success that they’ve been able to have,” Plucinski says.
Each season of FIRST Robotics leads to a regional competition held on the shores of Lake Superior in March. This year’s theme, “Charged Up,” brought two competing teams (or “alliances”) to the playing field with a goal to utilize game pieces to bring energy to their respective communities. Tasks involved retrieving game pieces, scoring game pieces to the grid and returning to their charge station—both autonomously and with a human driver. The alliance with the highest point total would move forward, and Providence Academy achieved its highest ranking yet at 15 out of 60 teams.
Though Providence Academy is the home of the lions, the FIRST Robotics Team has an unofficial mascot in the form of a little green frog. “A couple years ago, one of the older upperclassmen 3D-printed out a little frog, and since then we’ve had an engineering frog that says, ‘Rivet, Rivet,’ Ludlow says. The frog tags along to the annual competition, with each year’s robot sporting a frog sticker.