East Noble robotics team boosts STEM skills at Trine

East Noble High School teacher Shawn Kimmel said the school wants area businesses to know “we are trying to produce the absolute best STEM students that we can.”

That effort has involved launching a new robotics team and bringing them to Trine University on Wednesday, Nov. 13, to build their first project while gaining exposure to some of the region’s top STEM tools, facilities and expertise.

Twenty-five students took part in what Chris Osborne, program director for IndianaFIRST, called a “rookie quick build,” where students worked on a robot drive chassis similar to what they will get with their official competition kit in January.

Osborne and Logan Byers, training and development committee chair for IndianaFIRST, were on hand to help direct the activities.

“Trine providing this fantastic rookie quick build day for East Noble is a shining example of how our university partners can get high school students here and show them the fantastic facilities they have,” Osborne said. “They’ll build this, and then in January they won’t be scratching their heads saying, ‘What will we do now?’ ”

“It’s a chance for us to welcome them into not only FIRST Robotics Competition from a technical standpoint, but also from a cultural standpoint to understand how our competitions work, our core values and to get ready to become a full participant,” said Osborne.

Besides being able to work on the build project in the university’s mechanical engineering laboratory and Trine innovation 1, the students were able to tour campus and hear from a panel of East Noble graduates who are now students at Trine.

“We’ve got kids who are using tools they have never touched before,” Kimmel said. “They’re learning about pneumatics and our computer science kids are learning about the computer language in some of the control systems. They’re learning from an expert instead of from me.”

East Noble is participating for the first time in the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC), which is locally managed by IndianaFIRST. As the Indiana-based affiliate of FIRST, IndianaFIRST brings FIRST programming to students in grades K-12, teaching them hands-on skills in engineering, science and technology that they can relate back to their class work. Kids compete against other kids in district, state and world championship competitions in what is frequently called a “Varsity Sport for the Mind.”

In FRC, student teams work with coaches and volunteer mentors to not only design and build a robot, but raise funds to support the program, design a team brand and conduct community outreach activities.

“It’s as close to real-world engineering as a student can get,” said Osborne.

Robots are typically 4 feet tall and weigh 125 pounds, Osborne said. They compete three-on-three on a basketball court-sized area, with the type of competition changing each year.

“The pieces that the robots are manipulating are different,” Osborne said. “It could be a ball, it could be a cube, it could be a Frisbee, and they don’t know until January what that’s going to be.”

FIRST Robotics Competition teams from across the state compete in two of four district competitions offered. The top 32 compete at the state championship, where they vie for one of about 14 spots available at the world championships in Detroit.

Though the program involves competition, Byers said the organization’s highest award, the Chairman’s Award, goes to the team with the best community outreach effort. An entrepreneurship award is presented to the team with the best fundraising efforts.

“It’s not just building a robot and going to competition,” he said.

“We really aren’t about the robot,” Osborne said. “We’re about mentors in the communities, like Trine University staff or faculty, or manufacturing companies. Our teams are designed to run like a business, and so we want people with all sorts of backgrounds working with our students.”

Osborne said the ultimate goal of the statewide program is to build both STEM and soft skills for a stronger Hoosier workforce.

“Through these awards and having to talk with judges, we’re building confidence in young people to get them college- and career-ready,” he said. “What our sponsors tell us, from the corporate side, is it’s allowed them to feel like they can own their own workforce pipeline and start to work with high school students to see how we help prepare our own workforce.”

Kimmel said the high school was first approached last spring by technology supplier Bosch about starting a FIRST Robotics Competition team.

“We just kind of jumped in and we’ve been learning about it from there,” he said.

When Osborne suggested the rookie build day over the summer, Kimmel contacted Jason Blume, an alumnus of East Noble High School and Trine University who serves as executive director of Trine innovation 1, to set up the event.

Kimmel said the ultimate goal of East Noble’s FIRST Robotics Competition program is to help meet the STEM needs of community businesses.

“We want to be able to let the community and the businesses know that we have kids who are coming out of high school with lots of skills who are bright, who are capable of internships,” he said.

Photo: Tim Tew, third from left, a 2018 East Noble High School graduate who is now a mechanical engineering major at Trine University, assists members of the high school’s new robotics team as they work on a robot drive chassis Wednesday in the university’s mechanical engineering laboratory. East Noble joined the FIRST Robotics Competition program this year in order help meet the STEM needs of businesses in the community. (Photo by Dean Orewiler)