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Boone County’s PiBotics team is semifinalist in Rocket City Regional competition; STEM thrives

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By Cheryl Morton
Special to NKyTribune

The Boone County robotics team is competing in the semifinals in the Rocket City Regional Robotics Competition.

Recognizing the increasing demand for manufacturers and engineers in Northern Kentucky and the need to spark the interest of teens while they are still in high school, the Boone County public school system established a district-wide robotics team.

Students from all four county high schools, from grades 9-12, are immersed in education, inspiration, and hands on experience in robotics, engineering, and computer programming.

Established in 2011 with only 3 members, the Boone County PiBotics Team has grown to 30 active students and more than a dozen volunteer mentors. Experts in mechanical and electrical engineering, computer programming, and CAD volunteer hundreds of hours each year to help the team build highly competitive robots.

According to a report in the New York Times, the high demand for engineers and manufactures is expected to increase.

David A Jones, senior vice president of manufacturing and commercial sales at the Electrolux Group said: ”It’s absolutely vital to understand technologies like computer-integrated manufacturing, robotics and process controls. If you don’t learn it, you’ll be left behind. If you do, you can make a real contribution.”

According to the same article, “States such as Kentucky that are anxious to attract industry are also appropriating millions to develop manufacturing programs at their universities.”

While the efforts of universities to address the growing demand of engineering and manufacturing positions is exciting, waiting until college to introduce students to STEM is often too late.

According to a survey commissioned by Intel Corp and published by The American Society of Mechanical Engineers, “a lack of knowledge of the profession is a significant barrier to getting American teenagers to pursue engineering careers. The information that helps them make the decision to consider engineering includes what engineers actually do and how much money they make.”

The article continues, “The results of this survey show the importance of providing teens with opportunities to gain knowledge about engineering,” said Intel CIO Diane Bryant. “We need to offer teens real world, hands-on engineering experience and interaction with engineers, like that found in robotics programs and science competitions, to improve the likelihood that they’ll get hooked on the subject and pursue it in college.”

The Boone County robotics team didn’t have to wait for college.

In March, 2017, the Boone County PiBotics team traveled to Huntsville Alabama to compete in the Rocket City Regional robotics competition organized by First Robotics. Teenagers and mentors from all over the eastern half of the United States, from New York to Florida, and as far west as Illinois, introduced their originally designed, newly constructed robots to the competition judges.

PiFighter, the zippy, metal-framed, gear-collecting, rope-climbing robot designed and built by the Boone County PiBotics high school team, was a strong competitor.

In 2012, the Boone County PiBotics Team joined FIRST, an international organization whose mission is to “inspire young people to be science and technology leaders, by engaging them in exciting Mentor-based programs that build science, engineering, and technology skills, that inspire innovation, and that foster well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication, and leadership.” As a FIRST robotics team, the Boone County PiBots engage in multiple competitions each year.

The team has steadily grown, both in the number of students and mentors, and in the expansion of the robotics program.

In 2016, the team expanded its organizational structure to include multiple, student-led focus groups such as CAD design, marketing and finance, safety, construction, and programming. Using industry level software and working with corporate-sponsored mentors from local businesses such as Bosch, Duke, Regal, and Staples, teens in Boone County are developing real world experience in engineering and other professional fields.

In addition to the team’s internal expansion, the Boone County PiBots are also focused on community outreach and volunteer service in Northern Kentucky. Valuing the inspiration of the mentors who voluntarily help them, the students have spent many hours mentoring Boone County elementary and middle school kids who compete in the Lego League. The teens also participate in judging junior robotics competitions and inspiring younger children at the Maker Expo.

According to Beth Koch, a Boone County teacher and the PiBotics coach, “This team provides an excellent opportunity for teens to develop professional relationships with future employers.”

Developing power point presentations to promote their team, the students have met with professional leaders at Bosch, Duke, and Regal. “Having the opportunity to showcase their work and design to local industry leaders has invited multiple job opportunities for the students on our team,” said Beth.

Additionally, the Boone County robotics team has helped to prepare high school students for college by facilitating scholarship opportunities.

Senior Bryan Carroll received a full scholarship to Thomas More College, where he plans to study engineering next year. Senior Justin Allen has received a FAME scholarship, giving him the opportunity to study manufacturing in college next year. Sophomore Jake Williams has been accepted to the Craft Academy of Science and Mathematics, where he will study engineering.

Another focus of the Boone County PiBotics team is the recruitment of young women in science and engineering.

According to the National Girls Collaborative Project, “women remain underrepresented in the science and engineering workforce.”

Only 15% of American engineers are female. With Beth Koch leading the Boone County PiBotics team, there is a special focus on ensuring that teenage girls feel as welcome and valued as boys. As a result, 25% of the students on the Pibotics team are female, and several of the team mentors are female.

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