St. Helens High robotics class preps teens for future in engineering

by: KATIE WILSON - St. Helens High School seniors, from left, Charlie Pense, Duncan Adams and Josh Hamilton brainstorm ideas in the classroom set aside for the robotics teams. The teams have done well in competition over the last three years. Educators and parents say the class and the tournaments expose students to other careers and possibilities.Assignment: Design a robot that can precisely pick up and place weighted doughnut-shaped rings onto hooks.

Sound difficult? Now try doing this when you are 16 years old, on a tight budget and in only a handful of months.

Robotics is not your usual after-school activity, but in the last three years the class has gained momentum at St. Helens High School, with teams placing high in regional competitions.

Once the school year begins, more than a dozen students spend at least two evenings a week in a classroom tucked at the end of a hall.

One typical class day last week, a group of high schoolers argued at the blackboard, rapidly sketching their ideas, studying the challenge outlined for robotics teams competing in this season’s FIRST Tech Challenge. Another group circled a box-like robot sporting a tall vertical lift. Others poured over notes scattered across a table.

For many students, building the robot might be the easy part.

“It’s a pretty smart group of kids,” said their teacher Neil Ford.

And they all come to the class with their own ideas about how to build the robot. The struggle comes when they are “trying to figure out which idea is the best, which will work better for us,” said Duncan Adam, a senior and past participant in the class.

‘Hope and pray it works’

There are a lot of disagreements. So the students prototype their designs, scrutinizing every angle, testing the different design solutions and weeding out the designs that ultimately don’t KATIE WILSON - Duncan Adams, a senior at St. Helens High School, sketches out different ideas for a robotic arm that would attach to the main body of a robot his team will construct in an after-school robotics class. St. Helens is the only school district to offer the class, but community members hope to start robotics teams in other school districts in Columbia County.

Sometimes this means they’re building right up to the last second, with a competition looming.

“We have to take the best idea on paper and make that and then...” Adam trailed off.

“Hope and pray that it works,” finished one of his teammates.

This is what happened last year, they said, but it’s a situation they want to avoid at the next competition.

Still, that “crunch time” and the limit a deadline imposes are valuable factors in the class.

“That’s the way it is with a lot of stuff,” said Ford, who teaches math and chemistry at the high school and who applied for the grant that kick-started the first robotics class three years ago. “We never have enough time. We never have enough money or resources to do what we want to do. So we make it work... It’s extremely real world.”

Preparing for the real world

It’s this marriage of real world-meets-the-classroom that is particularly interesting to Trent Dolyniuk.

He owns and operates a local catering company, Blackbird Catering, and is a member of the St. Helens Elks Lodge. His son was a member of Ford’s robotics team and Dolyniuk saw firsthand what the class did for him.

“The competitions help them see beyond what’s just in their community,” he said.

It inspired Dolyniuk to find a way to support and expand the program.

“You’re trying to build future leaders,” he said. “The next solution to the energy problem could come from a kid in Clatskanie but if he doesn’t have the opportunity to test his mettle against other kids, you’ll never know.”

He is seeking to establish a foundation that could provide seed money to any school in Columbia County interested in starting a robotics team. Drawing on the Elks charitable nature, he has applied for a grant from the Elks National Foundation.

He estimates a robotics team would cost a school district between $3,000 and $4,000 each school year, not including travel. He believes that money, jumpstarted by foundation seed money, could come from the community and from corporate sponsors interested in training up the next generation of engineers.

“It’s such a natural fit for Columbia County,” Dolyniuk said. “People live in rural areas. They can’t afford to just buy a specific piece of equipment to get a job done.”

They have to improvise with what they already have at hand, a skill Ford’s students will begin to perfect before the year is done. They also might have a clearer idea of where they want to go.

“A lot of the kids that come and are interested in (robotics),” Ford said. “And they know that they’re kind of interested in engineering. Hopefully this pushes them over the edge.”

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