Engineering and Technology will guide area high school robotics competition

A partnership between Western Carolina University and regional high schools will provide students a fun learning experience in STEM ― science, technology, engineering and math ― through a statewide robotics competition.

A $178,000 grant that will be allocated over three years from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund to WCU’s College of Engineering and Technology will establish the program “PEARO: Providing Equitable Access to Robotics Opportunities.”

The program will include schools in North Carolina’s seven westernmost counties of Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Jackson, Macon, Swain and Transylvania, as well as the schools of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

Smoky Mountain High School’s 2019 robot.

Teams will participate in the FIRST Robotics Competition, an engineering challenge for high school students working closely with teachers and volunteer mentors. Teams have six weeks to conceptualize, design, build, program, modify and test a robot to participate in a competition that changes each year. The 2020 challenge will be announced in January.

New WNC teams begun under PEARO will be guided by WCU faculty and graduate assistants through “Saturday Institutes” at facilities of WCU’s College of Engineering and Technology, said Paul Yanik, WCU associate professor of engineering technology and program leader.

“This is a fun, vigorous approach to STEM education that involves alliances, mentoring and competition, and rewards innovation, professionalism and sportsmanship,” Yanik said. “The dynamics are incredible.”

Students are hands-on in all aspects of building and operating their robot, said Bob Kanwischer, a Smoky Mountain High School science teacher and a team coach. “That’s fabrication, that’s programming, designing functions and operating it,” he said. “It’s also fundraising, gaining sponsorship and creating a budget, public relations and everything it takes to sustain the project over time.”

Teams throughout the region help each other out and interact, though it is a competition that spans several categories, Yanik added. Robots must perform tasks such as launching projectiles into goals and climbing obstacles during competitions that play like sporting events.

The Smoky Mountain High School robotics team, holding trophies from this year’s competition.

“Mentoring is a key part of the program,” said Larissa Miller, a SMHS parent and team mentor. “Participants return the subsequent year to pass on what they learned and assist rookie teams. Every year the game changes, but the fundamental skills and knowledge required can be passed along.”

Program goals include increasing college attendance, encouraging interest in science and engineering, and boosting involvement in community service.

“I see the students getting enjoyment from participating in robotics,” said Marshall Murphy, a WCU graduate student in engineering technology from Hendersonville who is mentoring the Smoky Mountain team. “I get enjoyment helping out and encouraging them, and knowing that perhaps, because of this experience, they will consider continuing their STEM education similar to how I have.”

Marie E. Hopper, president of FIRST North Carolina, said the competition inspires the next generation of engineers, computer scientists and creative problem-solvers. “In the process of building a robot, students learn so much more than engineering and programming,” she said. “They learn how to collaborate on a team, how to communicate effectively and how to think logically. They learn about marketing, business and finance. They become inspired to solve tough challenges that can change the world.”

For more information on FIRST North Carolina, contact Hopper at marie@firstnorthcarolina.org.