Getting the geek on

Competitive robotics builds needed STEM skills for students

Posted on Sep 15, 2016 :: Education and Training
Sean P. Johnson
Posted by , Insight on Manufacturing Staff Writer

BRIAN RAPPL KNOWS THERE is no substitute for practical experience when it comes to working as a mechanical engineer.

Even as a newly-minted engineer, Rappl was confident he had experience in his background that enabled him to pick up nuances and practically apply engineering principles to get the job done. While the degree in mechanical engineering certainly gave him the knowledge, it was his high school experience in competitive robotics that gave him a base of practical knowledge that helped him succeed.

“There is no doubt in my mind the experience in robotics helped me get my first internship,” says Rappl, who now works as a consultant in Minneapolis while pursuing an MBA. “That experience indicated that I could apply the principles, that I knew how things really worked and I could pick things up quickly.”

Rappl, who graduated from St. Mary Catholic High School in 2007, would eventually parlay that experience into positions with Ingersoll Rand and Thermo King before deciding to return to school full time. He is quick to credit his high school robotics experience at SMC for that success.

“That was the first real, hands-on experience I was able to have,” Rappl says. “It challenges you to find the best way to do things. It also involves a lot of different disciplines, from design to building to programming to team building.”

It also happens to be a great way to expose students to in-demand science, technology, engineering and math skills needed in the modern economy. A 2015 study by the National Science Foundation determined a healthy STEM workforce is critical to innovation and competitiveness, while also highlighting the needs for these skills at multiple levels of employment, not just positions requiring college degrees.

Yet, the perception of STEM-related classes as difficult often deters students from pursuing them, and early exposure is critical to keeping students engaged.

That’s where competitive robotics can play a key role by allowing students to work with STEM skills in a fun and competitive environment. Whether it’s First Robotics, VEX or Lego League, getting the students involved is the key.

“We want them to do well, but what we really want them to do is learn,” says Arrow Guetschow, a senior manufacturing engineer with Vollrath and an adult mentor for the First Robotics program in the Manitowoc area. “They can get some real engineering experience and it really gives them a step up.”

Since starting in 2009, the First groups in the lakeshore area have grown to more than 230 participants at all levels, with expansions planned in the Green Bay and Sheboygan areas. Guetschow says the program is a boost to the advanced manufacturing that calls Northeast Wisconsin home.

“If we are going to keep that manufacturing base strong, these are the kids we have to keep interested,” he says.

In competitive robotics, regardless of level or program, the teams are given a challenge and then must design, test and deploy a robot that handles the task in a competitive environment. From middle school Lego League to the high school VEX World Championships, teams from schools across the region spend much of October through April designing, building and testing their robots.

It’s not just technical skills they are mastering.

Collaboration, team building, leadership and even marketing skills play key roles in the students’ experience with robotics, says Greg Cheslock, a mentor with St. Mary Catholic’s VEX Robotics teams. Teams must convince competing teams to build alliances to win competitions.

“Sure, they learn to build things and work with tools, but it’s the collaboration and the team building that are just as important,” Cheslock says. “Then it’s the problem solving. Oftentimes, the first attempt does not work, so they have to learn from it and try again. That’s what happens in real world engineering.”

SMC has offered a robotics program for more than 15 years, starting about the time the “BattleBots” television program was popular, and then evolving into its affiliation with VEX. The school hosts one of the larger regional tournaments and consistently sends team to the U.S. Open and World Championships.

While the club is highly decorated — it’s not part of the school curriculum — Cheslock agrees with the need to reach students even earlier in their academic career.

“We are short (of) engineers. A lot of businesses are already reaching out to kids at the middle school level to engage them,” he says. “Robotics can be a part of that process.”

As much fun as the students can have, they are also acquiring skills that will give them a leg up both in furthering their education as well as enhancing their career prospects, the mentors say.

Guetschow notes that participants in the Manitowoc First Robotics program can often earn internships with the club’s corporate sponsors, adding that computer aided design skills have led to several successful co-ops with companies in that region.

Cheslock points to the success of former students such as Rappl and others who are combining the skills they learned in robotics in new fields such as biomechanical engineering and the development of new prosthetics.

“The kids go a lot of different directions,” Cheslock says. “If you do robotics, you will take away a skill set that can go into almost any field.”