The Growth of FIRST Robotics Competition in Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota
There were a few FIRST Robotics Competition teams in Minnesota beginning in the mid 1990’s, but by the time FIRST Founder, Dean Kamen, spoke to a large auditorium of Medtronic employees in the spring of 2006, at the company’s headquarters in Fridley, there were only two FIRST Robotics Competition teams. He bemoaned the fact that, in such a technologically-minded state as Minnesota, there were not more teams, while there were close to 1,000 teams nationwide. Steve Oesterle, Senior Vice President, Medicine & Technology at the time, committed to drive its growth in the state, recruiting the Medtronic Foundation and other companies, including Medtronic competitor Boston Scientific to fund teams and the program’s infrastructure.
Minnesota accepts Dean’s challenge
Shortly after, Edina High School established its team (1816, the Green Machine) for the 2006 season, led by a recently-retired technology industry executive named Mark Lawrence. In the years that followed, Mark Lawrence chaired the Minnesota Regional Planning Committee, including the establishment and oversight of 5 regional competitions and numerous off-season events, gained the recognition of the Minnesota State High School League of the FIRST Robotics program, the first statewide sanctioning body of its kind to do so, and provided guidance to teams throughout the year. Mark’s sister, Susan Lawrence oversaw field operations for FIRST throughout the Midwest and provided executive-level leadership, fundraising and FIRST Robotics-specific guidance to Minnesota.
Joining Mark and Susan were Edina Team 1816’s mentor and leader, Laurie Shimizu, who recruited, built and managed hundreds of event volunteers. And, Ken Rosen, who was mentored by Steve Oesterle and hired by FIRST, recruited high schools throughout the state to start teams, and helped to raise funds for those teams and for Minnesota’s regional competitions. This 4-person team built the FIRST Robotics program throughout Minnesota.
The growth was explosive, from 2 teams in 2006 to 224 in 2020, when the pandemic hit. During its peak years, more than 4,850 students were actively involved on Minnesota teams and 63.2% of Minnesota high school students – at 231 schools affiliated with those teams – had access to a FIRST Robotics team. More than half of the teams were at small schools in Greater Minnesota, a region in which many STEM workers, especially engineers, at Twin Cities manufactures are raised. And for many years, Minnesota has had the third-largest FIRST Robotics state contingent of teams in the nation, trailing only Michigan and California.
The Dakotas begin their growth
While both North Dakota and South Dakota have had teams since 2002 and 2013, respectively, team numbers have remained small, with only 7 teams in North Dakota, and 1 team in South Dakota in the 2022 season. Thankfully, the teams that are currently in these states are committed to growth and expansion through support of rookie mentors and teams by veteran ones.
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