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A robotics team in every school? Ayer Shirley students bring dream to governor

January 28, 2016 | By M.E. Jones, Correspondent, Nashoba Valley Voice

AYER — The Ayer Shirley Regional High School FIRST Robotics Team has launched an original initiative called MASSFIRST, the aim of which is to introduce FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) programs in school districts statewide.

If the MASSFIRST goal is accomplished, every public elementary school in Massachusetts will have a Lego League, which is the entry-level start of the FIRST program.

MASSFIRST is not only an unique undertaking, said Ayer Shirley head coach Christine Miska; it also creates a dual mission for the team, which is simultaneously working on the competitive project that is the focal point of the FIRST Robotics program at the high school level.

The FIRST Robotics process is complex as well as competitive and includes developing a game plan, strategy and defensive play, with goals and objectives spelled out in the game manual.

“That’s the level we’re at,” Miska explained during a Sunday morning session at the high school. “How to get to finals.”

Add MASSFIRST and it’s an ambitious agenda, Miska acknowledged, but the campaign is off to an auspicious start, having already caught the attention of Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker.

Founded by entrepreneur and Segway inventor Dean Kamen, FIRST is a nationwide movement that kicks in when kids start school with Lego League Jr. (grades K-3) Lego Leagues (for grades 4-8) and proceeds to the Tech Challenge and Robotics Competition at the middle and high school levels.

These innovative after-school programs, typically with no public funds and as all-volunteer efforts, are aimed at sparking kids’ interest in science and technology, ultimately peopling the future high tech work force with capable hands and creative minds.

This includes the members of the Ayer Shirley FIRST Robotics Team. The team, now in its third year, meets frequently, including weekends, with its members, mentors and coaches, devoting many hours during the academic year to planning, designing and building the project they will take to this year’s competitions. The team is a family affair for Miska, an engineer at BAE Systems whose two kids and husband, an electrician, are all on board. With 45 student members and 28 adults, she pointed out that the Ayer Shirley volunteer component is extremely encouraging.

“It’s a real community effort,” she said. And the students are motivated and enthusiastic. Some seem to have found their niche, if not their future calling, in this unique extracurricular activity, she said, noting how the program brings out leadership qualities and hones skills in other areas such as business acumen and public speaking.

Last year’s team won awards with its entry: Andromeda One, a robotic heavy-lifter that, when mounted on a wheeled cart, can be driven around to pick up and move large items, from luggage to trash barrels.

“They really worked hard,” said team mentor Maureen Kilcommins, who showed a visitor the finished product, now stored in an anteroom and minus its conveyance.

The current team hasn’t settled on a project yet and is still at the brainstorming stage.

At the recent Sunday morning meeting, members broke into sub-groups to talk strategy. One was devoted to the MASSFIRST initiative, Miska said.

While mapping out a MASSFIRST plan, (before the team came up with a name for it,) one challenge the group faced was identifying which school systems across the state do or don’t have FIRST programs now, Miska said, although they knew that 40 percent of Massachusetts communities do not. Next would be outreach, who to talk to, how to get the message across and engage others.

“They love it and want everyone to have the opportunity” to participate, she explained. After concluding that a piecemeal approach could be problematic, they sought large group venues to spread the word instead, including the Mass Superintendents Association Conference and at the STEM summit in Worcester, where the idea of becoming the first state to have FIRST programs in every public school system piqued the governor’s interest. Given a brief presentation window, team members had a chance to expand when Baker stepped out to talk to them, Miska said.

“Tell me about it, I’d like to know more,” he said.

Which they did, in a recent visit to the statehouse. Additionally, Blair Brown is scheduled to come to the school, Miska said, which will hopefully provide a boost for the team’s MASSFIRST campaign.

Explaining why they’d chosen to pitch Lego Leagues statewide, Miska said they are the least expensive of all the FIRST programs to launch. Any interested adult can be a mentor and there’s no pricey equipment to buy. A couple of basic Lego sets pretty much the only materials required to get started. By comparison, a robotics project takes serious investment and teams must include fundraising in their overall plan, said Miska.

Donations from local businesses have been a huge help, she said, along with grants from non-profits such as the Ayer Shirley Education Foundation. ASEF’s Maureen Kilcommins is one of the team’s mentors.

“We’re also grateful to ASRSD Superintendent Mary Malone for her support,” she said.

A strong science and technology proponent, Malone has added classes to the curriculum as part of a STEM pathway, Miska said. Although Malone could not find money in the school budget for the FIRST Robotics Team, she found other ways to help, such as allowing the team to meet at the school after hours and on weekends without incurring the cost of a custodian.

Some team members now coach elementary school Lego Leagues, Miska said. She mentioned a young man, a high school weight lifter, who works with fourth and fifth graders at Page Hilltop, across the way. And one quiet young women coaches kids at Lura A. White School in Shirley.

“It taught her she could be a leader,” Miska said.

Chairman’s Award for robotics team ‘pretty awesome’

March 20, 2015 | By Jon Bishop,, Nashoba Publishing

AYER — The Ayer Shirley FIRST Robotics team, AndromedaOne, is now the proud recipient of FIRST’s most prestigious honor: the Chairman’s Award. They won it at the New England District Reading competition.

“We were really psyched about that,” said Christine Miska, the team coach. “That was a big deal.”

AndromedaOne, which won the Rookie All-Star Award last year, had the Chairman’s Award in its sights all year.

“I told them that was the team goal,” Miska said.

And the competition for it was tougher: They were “mixed in with all the teams who have been doing this for years.”

What’s important about the award is that it says Ayer Shirley has had a big impact on the community.

“It’s hard to get that in a second year,” Miska said. “Usually, you need to have many years,” adding that “it was a big goal, and the fact that we were awarded that in the second year was pretty awesome.”

Maureen Kilcommins, who is also involved with AndromedaOne, said that it was “very nice to be sitting in the stands” when the Chairman’s Award got announced, because you could see the kids start to sit up straighter. Miska said the same. When the students figured out during the introduction that they were the ones who won the award, they started to cheer.

And AndromedaOne was able to spread the wealth.

The Westford-based team they mentored, StormGears, won Rookie All-Star.

“We helped them through the year, through the season, and it was an extra bonus that they won their Rookie All-Star,” Miska said. “We helped them do that.”

According to Miska, because the team won the Chairman’s Award, they automatically qualified for the New England Championship, which will take place at WPI on April 9, 10, 11. And if they win that, they’ll head to the World Championship in St. Louis, which will be from April 23 to April 26.

Their robot, which is named Andromeda Squared and nicknamed Spock, has also been performing well. During the Nashua Competition, the robot placed 4th out of 40, and, in Reading, it was 2nd out of 40.

And an interesting tidbit about its name: The date of the Nashua competition was when Leonard Nimoy died.

According to Miska, the robot is 6’2″. And Kilcommins said that each year, teams have to build new robots.

“This year, the robot had to be able to pick things up. It had to be able to stack crates. Last year, it had to be able to throw a ball,” she said.

The following are some of AndromedaOne’s sponsors: Boston Scientific, NASA, the Ayer Shirley Educational Foundation, Consigli Construction, Dore & Whittier, Lucia’s Tavola, BAE Systems, ECI Technologies, Symmes Maini & McKee, Ayer Moving & Storage, and Home Depot.

There are about 40 students on the team.

FIRST Robotics in action!

February 27, 2015 | By Nashoba Publishing

After six weeks of planning, programming, building and strategizing the ASRSD’s robot, Andromeda2 is ready to compete.

If you’ve ever wondered what happens when two teams of 120-pound remote-controlled robots go head to head in a fast paced game of skill and strategy now is your chance!

Ayer Shirley’s team will be participating in the Granite State FIRST Robotics District event Feb. 27-28 at South Nashua High School and at the North Shore District Competition at Reading High School on March 7-8. These events are free and open to the public.

For information go to

Come cheer for the team as they participate in “Recycle Rush” presented by FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). Founded by Segway inventor Dean Kamen, FIRST gives students a real-world engineering experience while encouraging collaboration and sportsmanship.

The Ayer Shirley Regional High School team would like to thank its lead sponsors: Boston Scientific, NASA, Ayer Shirley Education Foundation, BAE Systems Inc., Consigli Construction Corporation, Dore & Whittier Management Partners, ECI Technologies LLC, Symmes Maini & McKee Associates and Lucia’s Tavola.

The team has also received generous support from the local community and we are proud to be representing Closets by Design, Ayer Moving & Storage, TAG Heating & Cooling, Solidworks, GitHub, Bemis, Home Depot (Leominster), IMEC, and MagneMotion.

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Who’s on FIRST for Ayer-Shirley?

February 8, 2015 | By The Lowell Sun

Nick Martone, a student at Ayer-Shirley Regional High School and a member of the school’s FIRST Robotics team, gets to work building this year’s robot in time for this year’s FIRST challenge, “Recycle Rush.” Competitions begin in March.

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