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Senators visit spotlights high school robotic clubs

by: David F. Ashton PigMice lead programmer, Jared Milred, explains the nature of their robot’s tasks to U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley, with the help of students Nathan Fuller and Mae Traham.

Just hours before the Cleveland High School PigMice FIRST Robotics Team was scheduled to be crating up their robot - to be sent off to the regional competition at Portland Veteran's Memorial Coliseum in late March - the team hosted a special visitor. U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley came to their lab at Cleveland High School on February 21st.

Representatives from Mahr's Metal Beavers - the long-established Portland robotics team once based at Franklin High - were also on hand to welcome the visiting politician.

On the stroll from the front of Cleveland High to the workshop, PigMice spokesman and CHS junior Nathan Fuller commented, 'I think it's really cool that we have a United States Senator who's showing an interest in science, technology, and math education. We're lacking a lot of those kinds of classes; they've cut almost all shop classes in Oregon. We don't have a lot of chances for students to get involved in the world of industry and engineering.'

Franklin High sophomore Thomas Hubel added, 'A visit like his is really good for robotics programs; the Senator being here brings attention to what we're doing.'

While the Cleveland High PigMice have grown to more than 30 members, Mahr's Metal Beavers continues to struggle to increase membership since being moved out of Franklin High - finding refuge in the basement of the Knights of Pythias building some fifty blocks east, in a drama chronicled in previous issues of THE BEE.

After holding a 'private meeting with special constituents' in the CHS Library, Senator Merkley emerged to join the robotics teams in the PigMice lab.

'Senator Merkley said he wanted to come here, and talk about how important science technology and math education are, and how they relate to the future of the competitiveness,' explained his Deputy Communications Manager, Courtney Warner Crowell.

Fuller told Merkley that the PigMice were going to a competition in Sacramento, California, as well as the March event at Portland's Memorial Coliseum this year. [The competition took place at the Coliseum as this issue of THE BEE was going to press; we'll have a report on it in the May issue.]

'We have a whole set of new freshmen members who have stepped up, and proved that they can hang with the 'big kids'. It's great to see our team progress to the next level, where we've created a sustainable entity.'

The lead programmer for the PigMice, CHS junior Jared Milred, told Merkley how his own involvement with the robotics club had led to a summer internship at Mentor Graphics. 'I've learned a ton of stuff during my internship, and brought it back to use here.'

Milred then introduced the senator to 'up-and-coming PigMice programmer' freshman Mae Traham, saying, 'She'd never touched any kind of code until this year. Now she is fluent in programming.'

Traham told THE BEE that a friend recommended the club to her. 'When I joined, everyone proved to me that this is a much bigger deal than I originally thought. Soon, I was learning programming languages, and having an absolutely great time.'

The PigMice team showed Merkley how they drive and navigate their human-sized robot, and tackle this year's assigned competition task of picking up plastic inflatable pool toys, placing them precisely on pegs - some as high as ten feet - all without puncturing them.

'Will you be in competition with students from many other schools?' Merkley asked. This question led to an explanation of the worldwide FIRST Robotics Competition, and everything that leads up to it.

Tom Bright, a sixth grade math teacher at Brooklyn's Winterhaven School, looked on as the demonstration continued. 'A good portion of the PigMice team are former students of mine,' he smiled.

Even though many of the PigMice are now far beyond the science-and-math magnet elementary school, they'd asked Bright to be a mentor.

'The best part of being a mentor is seeing the students take a difficult task, break it down into smaller tasks, and get it done. It's not like anything you can do in the classroom. It takes skills in math, technology, engineering, and also teamwork, fundraising - essentially it's like running a business.'

In mid-March, in a further honor, the former Franklin High team - Mahr's Metal Beavers - was invited to Salem to meet with state legislators in the Capitol.