By Melinda Munson

The Spark Sharks, Skagway School’s junior high robotics team and their highschool counterparts, The Prickles, both finished their seasons with a trip to state finals.

The Sharks, competing in First Lego League, placed first in regionals then moved on to finish fifth in the state in January, earning the coveted Core Values Award.

The junior high team almost didn’t make it to Anchorage for the state competition after their flight to Juneau was canceled, but the weather cleared and Skagway School was able to charter a small plane in time to catch the connecting flight.

As part of their season project, The Sharks researched and proposed electrifying the Smart Bus system. Resolution 22-43R, proposed by Assemblymember Reba Hylton and co-written with the eight Sharks, passed unanimously Dec.1, 2022. It directs the borough manager to “explore development and implementation of a municipal mass transit fee that could be used to offset the costs of bus electrification.”

“This has been on the municipality’s radar for a long time,” Hylton said. I was really excited for someone in the community to bring this forward. There’s nothing greater than empowering our youth to implement change.”

The Prickles, representing Skagway highschoolers in First Tech Challenge, placed first in regionals and third in state in January, also winning the Promote Award for sharing the virtues of robotics. (View their YouTube channel here.)

Prickles Co-Coach Andy Miller said the seven member team “really embraced CAD and JAVA.”

With junior high coach Mary Thole traveling for a family emergency, the highschool coaches periodically stepped in to substitute. They brought along the Prickles who mentored the younger students, helping to recreate competition conditions for the Sharks who participated in last year’s state finals via Zoom due to inclement weather.

“They had a blast working with the FLL [Shark Sparks] team this year,” said co-coach Mindy Miller.

The Millers continue to advocate for more school credit for highschool robotics participants. Skagway School currently offers .5 elective credits for one season of robotics, with a maximum of .5 credits, regardless of the number of seasons completed. According to Andy, Thunder Mountain High School in Juneau currently offers .5 science credits for each robotics season.

The highschool team, which is considered a club separate from the school, does not receive funding from the school budget and relies on fundraising.

Chloe Miller, a senior, plans on pursuing mechanical engineering. She credits robotics with teaching her “useful skills for life” including problem solving, team work, community outreach, graphic design, budgeting and business planning.

“It’s not just robots and metal,” she said.

Both robotics teams were named the Skagway School January Students of the Month for Citizenship. It was the first time teams were chosen for the distinction. 

Skagway School’s fourth and fifth graders weren’t left out of the technology experience. The two grades presented their First Lego League Jr. Robotics projects to their parents and addressed the school board Feb. 10. They shared energy saving solutions for the school, such as motion detection lights in the hallway and outdoor lighting powered by solar energy. One creative idea was a pedal bike to power Chromebooks. 

“This would provide students with exercise, it would save the school on electric bills in the long run, and it would be fun!” said participant Adalyn Gunzburg.