Design, build, program a 120-pound robot; then do homework

Students at a suburban Chicago high school are using leading-edge manufacturing technologies in their quest for robotics competition victory—and prospective employers are taking note.

By Christine LaFave Grace

For those who would shake their head about the future of the U.S. manufacturing workforce, an invitation: Next time you're in Chicago, swing out about 30 miles west of the city and drop in on a meeting of the Naperville North High School robotics club.

With a membership of 75 to 80 students, the club draws teens interested in engineering, fabrication, programming—even marketing (the club has its own media relations team). "We are almost a full corporation," says club co-sponsor Mark Rowzee, who worked in engineering for 10 years before becoming a physics teacher at his alma mater.

Consider this: The club, known as Huskie Robotics (@team3061), this year developed its own electric circuit board that it will market to other robotics clubs. A local manufacturer already has agreed to print 500 of the boards for the club to sell. And students are using leading-edge manufacturing tools and software to design, build, and test the 100-plus-pound robots they prepare each year for a national competition series. The team uses two 3D printers (one an Ekocycle Cube that came from a grant from The Coca-Cola Company) to produce gears, spacers and more. Programmers use National Instruments' LabVIEW professional-grade software.

"I never had access to this (kind of) stuff in high school," Rowzee says. "I didn't get my first engineering internship until I was in college." This year, he says, the club has a graduating senior who will spend his summer interning at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology.

The focus of the club's efforts throughout the year is the FIRST Robotics Competition, a national contest with an eight-week competition season in the spring. (FIRST stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.) Participating teams build a robot that will perform specific tasks—say, tossing a flying disk through a window—and work with other robots as stipulated by the terms of that year's themed game. This year's game pits two teams of three robots each against each other to perform recycling-related tasks.

One of the great things about the club, Rowzee says, is that it attracts students with a wide variety of interests, and it offers students a glimpse of the spectrum of career opportunities available in manufacturing. Some club members go on to study engineering in college—club alumni have taken engineering jobs with companies such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin—while others graduate ready for careers in fabrication and assembly.

Students who start as freshmen running mills and continue to develop their fabrication expertise over four years with the team leave high school workforce-ready and "could be making $25 to $30 an hour two years out of high school," Rowzee says.

Michael Levy, a junior and the captain of the fabrication team, became involved with the club as a lot of students do: with a curiosity about robotics but not a totally clear idea of what he wanted to focus on. The mechanical side of things piqued his interest, and this year he's leading a team of more than a half-dozen club students designing in AutoCAD and manufacturing parts for the robot.

Students "come here and they spend weeks figuring out what they want to do," he says. "Once they get hooked (on something), they can't stop; they love it."

That's exactly what prospective employers in the manufacturing and power-generation industries want to hear. And Huskie Robotics has won significant support—financial and in leadership expertise—from some of the biggest names in the field as part of these companies' broader initiatives supporting STEM in schools.

The team counts among its corporate backers Exelon, which pledged $5,000 to the club this year, according to a school district news release, and Molex, which pledged $20,000. Other sponsors include Navistar and the Motorola Solutions Foundation.

"They recognize the drought we're headed into from an engineering perspective," says Rowzee, adding that he is overwhelmed by businesses' support of the club.

"We have parents who see this and see how they companies could benefit from what we're doing, and sometimes we just call companies up and say, 'Hey, we need help with this,' " he says. "They donate time, talent, resources and product. They recognize that need. You just kind of have to ask."

The club, for its part, is investing in workforce development, too, as the team takes its robots from the previous year on tour to elementary schools in the district. An open house the club hosted one recent weeknight was open first to younger students ("our future team," Rowzee comments) and then to parents, district officials and representatives of sponsor companies and potential sponsors.

It's not bad progress for a club that started seven years ago at the request of a handful of students. "We had about four or five students who became aware of the competition and ... harangued me and three or four other teachers into becoming sponsors," Rowzee says. Last month, on the team's final build night before this year's robot had to be sequestered in advance of the start of competition, dozens of students were spread out across four classrooms, running through a final competition checklist.

A buzz of enthusiasm and adrenaline—the kind that's so striking at gatherings of students who are actively, visibly excited about a task at hand—underlay the meeting. For senior Yasha Mostofi, who says he's likely heading to the University of Illinois in the fall, the chance to apply what he learns in his STEM classes makes giving up most of his weeknights worthwhile. "When you have to build a robot, you're tackling a real problem," he says. 

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