Roger Jankowski| Crain’s Custom Media
A movement is underway — one with a heavy robotic footprint — to interest more high school and college students in careers based in science, technology, engineering and math.
It’s a movement that’s being championed by two area schools through a variety of real life educational opportunities in the fields of robotics and the broader mechatronics. School programs are generating interest from employers, as well.
Just ask Sean Hickman, who runs the robotics program at Pinckney High School.
“I get a call every day,” says Hickman, “for a kid who can do this or do that.”
In fact, one global automotive supplier, Brighton-based T.G. Fluid Systems, recently hired six of Hickman’s students. “Yeah,” he joked, “we’re taking over there.”
Pinckney High School was well ahead of the curve in 1988 when its robotics program got underway.
Hickman is quick to point that while there are many introductory programs in the area, “ours is a sophisticated program that goes past typical, secondary school outcomes.”
That’s something of an understatement. Pinckney’s program is nationally recognized and provides one of the most high-end STEM educations in the region. It’s also one of only about a dozen vocationally certified programs in the state.
Students there have won back-to-back national championships in robotics and automation by developing and implementing projects that encompass all aspects of a STEM education.
At the national SkillsUSA robotics competition in June, students were required to wire motors, do calculations on mechanical systems and troubleshoot electrical systems while also completing written and oral exams. These weren’t ivory tower, hypothetical situations, either. The projects were intended to reflect situations that students would encounter in the workplace every day.
And, in fact, at Pinckney High School, they do. Pinckney’s students are so in demand by companies eager to fill job openings, they’re offered internships and summer jobs, and even have their college tuition paid for by willing businesses.
Hickman is especially proud of two students he called upon to help a fellow student with muscular dystrophy. The assignment: Use robotics to create an automatic locker opener so their peer could experience the freedom of opening his own locker.
The students worked on their device all year, improving it through trial and error. According to Hickman, this made it “a good exercise in design engineering iteration,” or in laymen’s terms, trying something repeatedly. Ultimately, they developed a sensor that opened the door for their student peer. And with that came a grant of $1,500 from the Society of American Military Engineers so the device can be replicated.
At the community college level, to engage students of all ages in the possibilities of a STEM-base education, Macomb Community College hosted Lawrence Technological University’s most recent Robofest. This annual festival included, among other not-often-seen sights, a robot Thanksgiving Parade featuring fully autonomous robotic floats built and programmed by elementary and high school student teams.
“We host Robofest because it provides a compelling, interactive forum in which pre-college students can engage in STEM-related activities,” said Joe Petrosky, dean, engineering and advanced technology, Macomb Community College.
“By participating, students are able to explore possibilities in science and technology fields, which are expected to provide a lot of exciting, good-paying jobs in the future.”
Another sight to behold during the event was the new Global Robotics Art Festival, which featured student-built interactive robotics competing in visual and performing arts categories, such as dancing, music and skits.
In an effort to match displaced workers with new careers, Macomb is also set to embark upon an entirely new program — one that will use robotics training to direct these workers into highly skilled, advanced manufacturing careers. Funded by a three-year federal grant, the program is an intensive, 18-week immersion in robotics and automated systems technology.
Through the program, designed to mirror a 40-hour workweek, students will attend classes eight hours a day, five days a week, and will with new, compact robotic equipment, not the large, cumbersome robots of decades past. Macomb boasts one of the smallest, most skilled industrial robots in the workforce, thanks to its partnership with Haas Automation Inc. Haas provides equipment to Macomb at a generous discount in order to help the school generate interest among students in areas that will, in turn, develop qualified workers in robotics-related fields.
Both schools agree that the need for more students interested in STEM-related careers is huge. And both also know that one extremely successful way to fuel that interest is through robotics and these remarkable robots. Just ask the makers of “Transformers 4.”