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Robotics program teaches students engineering skills

April 10th, 2017

By Megan Knowles | Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly

A statewide after-school program is teaching students real-world engineering skills – but locally only Huntington County and Homestead High School students have access to it.

The mission of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics is to spread engineering knowledge and expertise to youth, said Andrew Lund, a member of Huntington County 4-H Team 1501 THRUST.

In January, teams are given a challenge and have six weeks to design a robot to meet that objective, said Hannah Parks, Homestead High School Team Olympus Robotics 4982 member.

Teams then gather into district competitions, where they work with other teams to complete the objective. The team approach allows students to learn the value of cooperation, both within and outside their teammates, Homestead lead mentor Robert Steverson said.

“It’s a big project, they’re limited in their time and resources, so they really have to come to learn how to start coordinating, working together,” he said. “They have to learn how to deal with conflict. They have different opinions and it’s not who’s right and who’s wrong it’s not taking it personal and these are a lot of things as high school students they haven’t developed.”

Of course, there are the engineering skills learned as well, often from industry mentors who volunteer their time.

“We work with real engineers and professionals in the field and they get to teach us the skills necessary to become engineers,” Lund said.

Lund has learned computer-aided design through FIRST Robotics, while his teammate, Noah Nguyen, has learned how to use mills and lathes while on the team.

“I think the technical skills you learn are very invaluable,” Homestead senior Nate Dauterman said. “The business and the teamwork is a massive part. I walked into this program with no knowledge and now I know how to wire the entire robot.”

Despite the name, working on the robots is only one component in FIRST Robotics.

Marketing is a major part of the program, as teams need to raise funds to help finance their robot as well as try to recruit professional mentors.

“I really learned how to talk to people and how to properly express myself and … go in front of people and say what I love doing: robotics,” Parks said.

The marketing team is also important during competitions. Teams are awarded points based on their robot’s performance, but they also receive points from winning certain awards. The marketing team is responsible for promoting their team’s work to a panel of award judges.

“They improve our chances of getting those awards and those awards give us points that further us toward advancing in the standings of our competition,” Lund said.

“We have a small group of high school students running a small robotics company and that’s something that’s extremely valuable,” Steverson said.

The program comes at a cost, however, as each team must raise about $15,000 to $18,000 annually to finance the program. Steverson believes that is why there are not more programs locally. But the program has found success in other parts of the state, with about 50 teams across Indiana.

Steverson sees FIRST Robotics as one way to fight “brain drain” and people leaving northeast Indiana for other parts of the state.

Teams try to get professional mentors to not only assist students with the technical aspects of their robot but also to “be there so the students can look at them and say, so, you’re a software engineer, what do you do?” Steverson said.

“What’s going to bring them back (to northeast Indiana) is if they know there are (relevant industries) here,” he said, citing BAE Systems as an example. “The kids don’t have a way of knowing that unless we reach out to the industry and then they can say, you know what, maybe I do want to go back to the northeast Indiana area.”

To support local FIRST Robotics teams with funds or mentors, email:

Huntington County team: Chris Elston, chris@elstonsystems.com

Homestead High School team: Robert Steverson, r.steverson@sacs.k12.us