Education

Lexington County students are getting big money to build robots

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These days, even a 12-year-old can build a robot.

Technology-based skills are increasingly in-demand in the workforce, and schools are beefing up their STEM education — yes, that includes robots — to train students to keep up.

In Lexington 1 schools, robotics has grown in popularity over the past few years, and the district is devoting money to match the interest.

Several in the district are getting a share of $48,000 to kick-start new robotics teams and bolster existing ones.

Most of that money — $30,000 — will come from Michelin, the tire company that has a local plant in Lexington. The money will be spread out over three years and will help schools buy the often-expensive equipment involved with robotics. The other $18,000 is from the Lexington 1 Educational Foundation and is being distributed immediately.

Julie Washburn, executive director of the foundation, said the grants are reflections of what students wanted. As in other local school districts, robotics and other STEM programs have been in high demand.

River Bluff High School is one of the schools that will use part of the seed money to buy materials for its new robotics team.

Last week, 10 River Bluff students crowded around a table in a far corner of the expansive school campus. It was after school. The band was gearing up for practice on the field outside, and students were laughing and lining bulletin boards in the hallway with colorful paper. These students, however, were devising how to make a robot that would vanquish competitors.

It’s the first year of the robotics team at River Bluff, and it’s only had a few meetings. But already, eager hands shoot up when volunteer teacher Don Mellen asks a question. Most team members are trying out robotics for the first time, so there’s a learning curve.

The team captain, sophomore William Wenzel, is helping guide his peers through the process of designing a suitable robot — one that can throw, turn flags, score points and recover from attacks by opponents. The team has just under two months to prepare for its first competition on Dec. 1.

Wenzel looks on intently as his teammates make decisions. He’s been involved in robotics since he was in elementary school, and he’s been “nitpicking” at designs since he was even younger, he says.

His attention to detail comes in handy in robotics practice. His freshman year, Wenzel built robots as part of the team at Lexington Technology Center, a technical school that’s the school district’s hub for advanced STEM education.

LTC serves students from various schools in the district, but it can be difficult for students like Wenzel, who had to commute 20 to 30 minutes every week for practices. After a while, he said, the distance started discouraging him from taking part in robotics.

Having a team at his own high school is a big relief.

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Rosemary Bianchi manages the career and technical education program at LTC and was a key player in bringing robotics to Lexington 1. Over the summer, Bianchi spoke to the foundation’s board and to Michelin about robotics, helping to secure the funding.

She believes in the value of these teams, though some have only five or 10 students in them.

“Students really get a lot of autonomy to work through a problem and make mistakes but then make solutions,” Bianchi said.

LTC will have at least two joint teams this year with Lexington High School, and White Knoll High School will also get a team for the first time. The foundation is still working on dispersing the remaining funds, Washburn said, so there might be additional teams.

Washburn said the money from Michelin and the foundation will help get these teams up on their feet, but it will cover “only the tip of the iceberg” of what it costs to run a robotics team.

The hardware and technology used to create the robots, which must be designed every year to meet the demands of competition challenges, is expensive. That, plus competition registration and travel expenses, adds up.

With financial help, students can focus on learning.

Students are tasked with breaking down a challenge they get at the beginning of the school year and a detailed set of accompanying rules. Then they must design a robot to meet those expectations and get to building. The robot needs to be programmed, along with a remote controller that will maneuver it. Trial runs need to be completed, issues corrected, and everything tried again. It’s a laborious and intellectually rigorous extracurricular.

Problem solving, technical skills and the ability to work collaboratively are traits that companies like Michelin look for in employees. That’s why the company is investing in Lexington County students.

“We’re going to recruit from our local area, and we have to invest in local areas to reap the benefits of the people,” said Mike Williams, facility personnel manager for Michelin’s Lexington plant.

Williams heads the human resources department that hires the site’s workers. It is difficult to find people with the skills these students will learn at a young age, he says, so it is a worthwhile investment for Michelin. Those preteens learning engineering and computer science could someday be superstars at maintaining the multimillion-dollar equipment Michelin uses.

At White Knoll Middle School, there are two robotics teams, and they have already come up with first drafts of their robots for this year’s competition.

Seventh-graders Advaita Patel and Ty Bennett have been involved with robotics since last year.

Programming wasn’t her strong suit, Patel said, so she instead helped her team (cleverly named Syntax Error) record its progress and process in the “engineering notebook.” A meticulous and thoughtful notebook can win teams awards at the competitions.

Bennett helped with building the robot.

Patel and Bennett are different and they run in separate social circles, but both light up when talking about last year’s competition and how complex older students’ robots were.

Bianchi said competing gives students the chance to meet others from across South Carolina and even the country, and it broadens the students’ perspectives.

”The world gets a little bit bigger,” Bianchi said.

Teams are applying the things they learn in class, such as programming, computer science, math and even art, into a long term project, so the lessons become tangible in the form of an 18-by-18-inch metal structure.

Bennett wants to pursue a career in medicine and said he sees his skills being useful for years to come. He now sees how automation can help humans accomplish things they wouldn’t be able to otherwise, and he thinks he could use that knowledge to help combat brain tumors in particular.

“Robotics has helped me learn about the possibilities of the future,” Bennett said.

Part of the grant from Michelin is bringing mentors from the local tire plant to mentor students on robotics teams. That, Williams said, is crucial because of the professional development it affords students at a young age.

Promising students could also get a shot at being in Michelin’s Tech Scholar Program, which employs recent high school graduates part-time at the plant while they attend technical college and earn a degree in mechatronics — that is, mechanics and electronics combined. After two years, those students graduate with a degree and can secure a high-paying, entry-level job with the company.

“When their classmates from high school are entering their junior year in college and probably collecting debt to pay for school, these students are now earning $55,000 a year at a minimum, and they have no debt because we’re paying for their schooling,” Williams said.

That may be the future for some Lexington 1 students, but for now, it’s all about the upcoming competitions.

This month, students like Bennett, Patel and Wenzel will be visioning, designing, creating, scrapping, trying and trying again — before class, during lunch and after school if the project demands that time, Patel said — to get as close to possible as excellence.

Wenzel, the most experienced robotics student in the River Bluff High School team, said there will never be a flawless robot, but they will try their best with what they have come December.

“A paper can always be written better and better. There’s never a final perfect moment. It’s kind of like that in robotics,” Wenzel said. “There can always be a problem in it, and the main reason you say it’s done is because you have a deadline.”

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