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Technical center students playing vital role as RoboBOTS competition nears

The Crawford County Career & Technical Center won't field a team at this year's annual RoboBOTS competition, but it will make its presence felt.

On March 30, 41 teams from 21 schools are set to clash with 15-pound robots doing battle in a round-robin tournament at Meadville Area Senior High School.

There's no RoboBOTS team from the technical center's precision machining program — but not because its students aren't interested. They're helping other high school teams iron out design issues as well as machining parts for other teams. It's all they can do because the technical center's students are in demand already by area manufacturers.

"We've got 10 seniors (in the program), but they're all out on co-op (cooperative education) — working," said Jim Hillwig, who, along with Kyle Gates, is an instructor in the precision machining program. "Companies even are calling asking about juniors."

The juniors don't have enough experience yet to be considered for cooperative education, according to Hillwig and Gates.

Cooperative education combines school-based education with practical work experience, giving school credit for the job experience and paying the students at the same time.

"They're out there working and they're not out on minimum wage jobs," Hillwig said. "It's really amazing when you think about it. You have kids operating a $100,000 piece of equipment and they do it well."

"Right now," Gates said, "there are about 65 job openings in machining in the region — about two-thirds are in Crawford County, but we're getting calls from companies Erie, Mercer, Venango and Butler counties asking if we have anybody else. The industry need the bodies."

The northwestern Pennsylvania chapter of the National Tooling and Machining Association, a trade group for the tooling and machining industry, sponsors the annual RoboBOTS competition as a way to get students interested in pursuing technical careers.

NTMA surveys of participants have found 95 percent of students who participate said RoboBOTS raised their awareness of manufacturing and technical careers — and 85 percent of the students said they want investigate the possibility of a career in a technical field.

The students — whether in the Crawford County Career & Technical Center's precision machining program or just RoboBOTS — say they like the challenge of figuring out how to make things.

"I like working with things hands-on," said Olivia Crowther, a junior from Maplewood Junior-Senior High School in the precision machining program. "I don't like being in a classroom all day. Every day it's something different with problems to solve. You can see the work progress."

That, too, is something that's enjoyed by Henry Piatt, a senior from Conneaut Area Senior High in the precision machining program.

"You're not doing the same thing every day," Piatt said.

Crowther and Piatt were assisting Megan Prenatt in making parts for a beater bar weapon for her RoboBOTS team's robot, Odin. The part was designed at Maplewood High but cut by precision machining students at the technical center. Prenatt is part of the Ragnarok RoboBOTS team at Maplewood High.

Prenatt is a senior at Maplewood, but this is her first year in the RoboBOTS competition. She has done computer aided design work throughout her high school career.

"I want to go to work in manufacturing," Prenatt said. "I'm looking at plastics engineering. Being in RoboBOTS will give me better understanding of robotics and help."

In another part of the precision machining shop, Gavin Collier and Rocky Buford were conferring about how to mill down a piece of S7 steel stock for the beater bar, grade of steel that has impact resistance due to high strengthen and toughness.

Collier is a junior from Cambridge Springs in the technical center's precision machining program while Buford, a ninth grade student at Maplewood, is on the Ragnarok team. They were milling it to an approximate size before the close tolerance finishing work was done.

"It's hard to deal with if you're not careful," Collier said of working with S7. "You have to be precise in the cutting speed because it will become hard to work with if you're not because of heat transfer."

Over at a computer, Adam LeSuer, another junior from Cambridge Springs in the precision machining program, was work with Taylor Rankin, a ninth grader at Maplewood.

They were double-checking the Mastercam computer program to ensure it was set accurately for the CNC, or computer numerical control, machinery. The Mastercam program designs the tool path to cut the part out of the tool steel.

A CNC machine is computer controlled and acts much like a robot. The cuts are programmed into the computer software and dictate movements to corresponding tools and machinery.

"I like to build things," Rankin said of why he's gotten involved in the RoboBOTS program and is looking at precision machining as a career.

LeSuer said, he, too, wants to go into manufacturing, but in a big way.

"I like building things, but I want to invent things, too," he said with a smile. "I want to be an entrepreneur someday."

Comments like that are things the precision machining instructors love to hear.

"This is giving the kids hands-on opportunities in design and making the parts," Gates. "They also get the satisfaction of seeing the parts through from start to finish."

Manufacturers both here and nationally have said they need mechanical and electrical engineers, computer engineers, machinists, tool and die makers, electricians and welders.

Manufacturing is important to Crawford County since there is a heavier reliance on it here than other areas of Pennsylvania and the country. About 22 percent of the jobs in the county are related to manufacturing, compared to 10 percent for the state and 8.5 percent nationally.

Many of the area’s tooling and machining shops are suppliers of tools, equipment and parts to major manufacturers.

Tami Adams, executive director of the northwestern Pennsylvania chapter of the NTMA, said it's encouraging that more students, educators and school administrators are looking at precision machining as a career path.

"They're asking what is the skill set needed for these jobs," she said. "They want to know what kind of background and experience is needed."

Getting more young people in the pipeline to fill job openings is key, she said.

"The number one issue with the companies is they're looking for people," she said. "They're wanting to buy more equipment and expand operations, but they don't have the employees to operate more equipment."

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