The best-kept secret in robotics: the kids!

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Coeur d'Alene High School's robotics team included, from left, Scott Ballard, Thys Ballard, Montana Dobbs, Bryan Dryden, Jase Dryden and Preston Dryden. Other team members include Josh Wheeler, Keaton Marschmann, Spencer Gomez, Joe Broder and Greg Larson. Mentors include Julie Dryden, Ross Welburn, Deb Wheeler, Scott Broder, Kevin Haler, and Marty Mueller.

North Idaho, from Coeur d'Alene to Bonners Ferry, is the home of three high school and six middle school robotics teams. You heard that right, we have teens and pre-teens building robots and these young guns are doing amazing things!

Last year, a small team comprised of four middle school students from Canfield Middle and Cd'A Charter won the Idaho State Championship in Moscow. Last week, the Coeur d'Alene High School team (see photo on page C3) placed third in the Western Canadian regional in Calgary.

"It's amazing how well our kids do in these competitions given the competitive nature of these events. It just shows you how bright they all are," said Scott Broder, a three-year veteran robotics coach. "Last week we showed up in Calgary with 11 kids on our team, and competed against schools from other states that showed up with 150 kids and three robots. As far as I am concerned, we won!

"There's a whole world of competitive robotics for kids that most parents and schools don't really take advantage of, every school should have a team, it's a shame really," Broder said.

And a shame it is. According to the statistics, if a student is on a robotics team, he or she is 50 percent more likely to attend college, twice as likely to major in science, and four times more likely to follow engineering.

"This year, looks like will have a 100 percent graduation rate and college attendance for our team's seniors," Broder said.

Robotics is poised to be the next digital revolution. All economic data points to a future in robotics, and the U.S. needs to make sure it's on top.

"This is an opportunity to get back our manufacturing sector. Inspiring our kids now will pay off big later," Broder said.

The competitions are now a worldwide phenomenon run by F.I.R.S.T., a not-for-profit organization that has registered more than 18,000 teams. The league started back in 1989, but popularity has skyrocketed in the last few years due to technology becoming more and more accessible. It also doesn't hurt that companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook are fighting over who gets to buy the latest and greatest robotics company.

"It's sad, because as well as they do, our kids are at a severe disadvantage," Broder said. "The high school teams are completely supported by donations from local businesses and sponsors. We sell advertising space on the robot. We raised about $20K this year to build our robot, and that's cheap. Most teams are operating on closer to $75K. One team last week in Calgary raised $150K and showed up with three robots."

The middle school teams cost much less to run, only about $500. Anyone wanting to organize a team or help sponsor should get in touch with Scott. He can be reached at scott@xpollin.com.

Nick Smoot is a Coeur d'Alene native and founder/CEO of Here On Biz. Contact him at nick@hereonbiz.com. Follow Innovation Collective on Twitter @innovatecda.

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