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Robotics program drives high schoolers to Sylvania

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MacKenzie Gray of Tigard High School, foreground, and Selena Hasan of Riverdale High School, design a hammer at PCC's Machine Manufacturing lab.

For the fifth straight year, high school students from throughout the metropolitan area have come to Portland Community College’s Sylvania Campus to take part in the FIRST Robotics Shop Training Summer Camp.

The camp gives students age 15 to 17 a hands-on learning opportunity in the college’s Machine Manufacturing Technology program. They will be at the college for three weeks in July and August, learning machine shop theory and safety, measurement and precision-measuring tools, and the theory and practice leading to engineering projects.

“We don’t have any equipment even close to this,” said MacKenzie Gray, a student from Tigard High School. “Having access to this lab will make such a real difference.”

The camp is a ramp-up to the annual FIRST Robotics competition. Students in the three-week PCC program will learn the skills they need to invent robots that will compete against each other in the coming year, at both state and regional competitions.

FIRST – For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology – is a nationwide program designed to give students some of the skills that, a generation ago, they might have received in a shop class.

Middle schools and high schools throughout Oregon, and the rest of the nation, have eliminated shop classes.

Brad Avakian, Oregon Commissioner for the Bureau of Labor and Industries, toured the Sylvania engineering lab on Monday, July 11, and spoke to participating students. Avakian has long championed so-called shop classes in his current role, and as a former member of the Oregon Legislature.

“You go back 15 years and there were programs like this in every high school. And we’ve lost all that,” he said. “We have created great partnerships with places like PCC to provide these opportunities again.”

Brad Avakian, Oregon labor commissioner, discusses a project with students John Nutter of Riverdale, center, and Bronson Kim of Benson.

Avakian championed career technical education classes, such as shop class, but also music and art, as mechanisms for keeping students in high school and boosting graduation rates. He cited a study that said 94 percent of students who take part in such programs graduate from high school in four years.

Debra Mumm-Hill, Northwest regional director for the FIRST Program, agreed but added that students who participate in the robotics program also are more likely to succeed in college. She said, of 100 students who participate in the robotics program, on average 55 of them will go to college and will major in engineering or science.

She said an estimated 5,000 students in Oregon participate in the program, with 7,000 in the state of Washington. Her goal now is to expand FIRST into rural and underserved school districts.

Penelope Biggs, a senior at Benson High School, credited the engineering program with keeping her in school.

“I don’t know what I’d be doing if I wasn’t in Benson’s (career technical) program,” she said at the Sylvania Campus. “I know I wouldn’t have leadership experience if it wasn’t for robotics.”

Dan Findley, division dean for math and industrial technology, said Sylvania has “cobbled” together funding for the summer training camp for the last five years, because college officials believe that the program is valuable for the student participants. Beyond a registration fee, the summer camp is free of charge.

“This is important. We feel it’s worth doing,” he said.

Mentor Graphics apparently agrees. This year, the Oregon-based, high-tech firm provided a $10,000 grant to the PCC Foundation to help support tuition for the high school students.

Other key partners have included Boeing and Intel, Findley said.

Bryan Fix, head of Human Resources at SolarWorld Americas, agrees.

“We highly recommend PCC as a key partner for programs such as the summer camp at the FIRST Robotics teams,” Fix said. “This is a key feeder program for students who need training in this area. SolarWorld utilizes highly specialized robotic assembly procedures, and the value of exposing our local youth to robotics and related technical disciplines is invaluable to helping build the workforce of the future.”

Dan Findley, division dean for math and industrial technology, listens as Commissioner Avakian addresses educators.

Avakian – who also is a candidate for Oregon’s 1st Congressional District in 2012 – said efforts such as No Child Left Behind focused high schools almost exclusively on math, science and English. As a consequence, programs such as career technical training have been abandoned.

He applauded the 2011 Legislature for addressing this issue. First, by providing $150,000 for the robotics program statewide. And also for passage of House Bill 3362, which provided $2 million in competitive grant money for middle schools and high schools to restart shop classes.

He said 10 schools will receive the grants this year. It’s a 10-year program. “In a decade, we hope to return shop (classes) to every middle and high school in Oregon,” he said.

And Avakian’s long-term goal? “To create, here in Oregon, the most skilled and ready workforce around the globe.”



About Dana Haynes

Dana Haynes, joined PCC in 2007 as the manager of the Office of Public Affairs, directing the college's media and government relations. Haynes spent the previous 20 years as a reporter, columnist and editor for Oregon newspapers, including ... more »


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