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What Did You Do On Summer Vacation? These Ohio Kids Built Robots

Jason Reynolds
The first-of-its-kind Dayton summer camp is part of a statewide effort to spark interest in high-tech manufacturing among young people. Ohio’s industry faces a shortage of skilled STEM workers.";

At the Russ Research Center in Beavercreek, 30 kids between the ages of 12 and 16 are building robots with the help of mentors.

People use saws to cut polymers and large chunks of metal. It’s all part of a weeklong manufacturing camp sponsored by Ohio University, Sen. Sherrod Brown and a handful of industry partners.

Ross McNutt is one of the mentors at this week’s camp.

"They’re making a robot base," he says. "So, we’re cutting out the aluminum so that they can actually use that to mount their motors and their controls and their sensors and everything else on so that each kid can have their own little robot."

For young people across Ohio, September is a time to head back to school and share stories of summer vacation. This fall, some Miami Valley students can brag about building robots at a camp intended to spark interest in high-tech manufacturing, an industry that faces a shortage of skilled workers. 

In the next room, 15-year-old Monikka Gay is working on a circuit board.

"Right now we’re working on building robots that will be able to follow a colored line," Gay says, putting wires in place.

She explaining to a visitor that robots such as this one have many real-world applications. 

"Of course, there’s the world of manufacturing where robots are in demand to replace humans and do their jobs,” Gay says.

She says today's manufacturing industry is highly automated and advanced. 

"It’s super technological, and you use all these super fine, intricate parts,” she says. “And being able to work them and learn how to use them at such a young age, it’s really cool.”

When it’s complete, Gay’s wheeled robot will be able detect colors and follow lines on its own, and she can see the endless possibilities from there: robots capable doing everything from turning wrenches to driving a car to flying a drone.

But Gay says she heard about the camp in a decidedly old-school way: Her mom brought home a flyer.

“My mom showed me the paper, and I’m like, hey! Engineering Camp! Let’s go!” she says. “I’m more focused on the engineering aspect but manufacturing is engineering.”

Credit Jason Reynolds / WYSO
Monikka Gay, 15, builds a circuit board to create a robot capable of detecting colors and following lines on its own.

These days, manufacturing isn’t just work boots and safety goggles – it’s science.

And state officials want to hear more young people echo those kinds of sentiments. That’s why they started this camp. The manufacturing camp costs just $50 per camper, because a lot of the staff are volunteers and college students.

Ohio University provides the camp’s building and Miami Valley manufacturing companies donate their staff and time.

The program is one of more than six dozen sponsored by Sen. Sherrod Brown. But it's first one of its kind to host campers in the Miami Valley.

Brown says he hopes these camps will help to change young people’s view of the manufacturing industry.

"The image of manufacturing for lots of people that went to college or lots of people that don’t know much about manufacturing is that it’s dirty and rusty and old-fashioned and boring, but in fact it’s none of those things,” Brown says. “I get calls from parents saying, you know, ‘My daughter didn’t really like school, but now she wants to be an engineer, or now she wants to be a welder, or now she wants to be a technician of some kind, because she got to see things made in real businesses.’”

As part of the camp, campers tour inside Universal Technology Corporation or UTC, where a wide array of 3D printers are in action.

"We are currently printing a part for an Air Force Research Lab for wind tunnel testing and a part for NASA," says Olga Ivanova. 

UTC also makes 3D printers, including one model that can print steel and different alloys. More and more high-tech parts are being manufactured this way.

Gov. John Kasich has made workforce training and high-tech manufacturing skills a priority.

Back at the camp, mentor Ross McNutt says manufacturing-related programs are already having impact in the Miami Valley. And his students are world-class.

“We actually made it to the world championships this year in our first year,” he says. “We’ve got five robotics teams in the building, we’ve got four LEGO robotics teams, and then we have the first robotics competition, which is Beavercreek Varsity Robotics Team.”

Exposing more young people to manufacturing may be the key to keeping that sector strong in Ohio, industry advocates say. Ohio still ranks third in the nation in manufacturing - the state’s manufacturing sector has an annual payroll of $40 billion – but many employers say they can’t find enough highly trained workers to fill open jobs.

A recent study out of Ball State shows Ohio’s manufacturing sector slipping from a letter grade of A to B. The same study shows some neighboring states are doing better, earning A’s. By one measure, Michigan has almost three times the number of tech and robotics teams for young people.

So Ohio and the Miami Valley may be playing catch-up when it comes to introducing the next generation to 21st century manufacturing skills.

This story is part of WYSO's Scratchseries on business and the economy.