Robotics team honored by National Park

DOLLAR BAY – Most zebra mussels are no bigger than a fingernail. But if they reached the inland lakes at Isle Royale National Park, they’d completely change the lake within five years, said park Superintendent Phyllis Green.

So stopping them is paramount. And building a robot that can do just that is award-worthy.

That was the conclusion of the National Park Service, which honored Dollar Bay High School’s Student Organization of Aquatic Robotics class with first place in the national George and Helen Hartzog Awards for Outstanding Volunteer Service.

The award was presented to the team at an assembly Thursday at the school.

This summer, the class’s aquatic remotely operated vehicles were used at Isle Royale to check under boats for zebra mussels. It’s a useful supplement to divers, because frigid Lake Superior waters prevent them from enduring long-term searches.

“We have a lot of things that are part of the NPS mission to protect, and we wouldn’t be doing as good of a job without the determination and innovation of this group,” Green said.

The SOAR class is an elective open to all high schoolers, who can take it for all four years. Dollar Bay-Tamarack City Area Schools is the only local district to have a class for both land and aquatic robotics.

Green presented the award to SOAR president Xena Cortez.

“It is beyond my vocabulary to describe the absolute honor it is to receive this award for our team and our school,” Cortez said.

They still have more things they’d like to add, including depth sensors and a digital compass, Cortez said.

Superintendent Jan Quarless said it is the most prestigious honor he can remember in his time with the district. And he commended students for doing it with an award for volunteer work.

“That’s the best thing we can do throughout our life,” he said.

SOAR teacher Matt Zimmer said students have leadership of the project, including choosing the project, controlling their budget and conducting peer evaluations. It’s also notable for being a project based on cooperation, he said.

“SOAR exists not to compete with other groups, but to serve other groups,” he said.

K-12 Principal William Rivest said the district has made a priority to boost academic performance through methods such as a move to the trimester system and adding new technology.

“You know what, we’re getting there,” he said. “This is one more example of that happening.”

Three team members – Cortez, Thomas Dunstan and Carl Kangas – will fly to Washington, D.C., for an awards ceremony.

“I think it’s really amazing,” Cortez said. “I’ve never been on a plane, so this is huge. This is huge for our team, even, being from Dollar Bay, going to Washington, D.C.”

Cortez, who has spent two years on the team, said she’s gained more skills and learned more about working in a group environment.

“It’s not only math stuff, science stuff, water stuff,” she said. “It’s a team thing. We work together.”