Eau Claire, WI – River Falls High School students Nate Dodge and Nick Decheine were having some trouble getting their robotic vehicle to navigate the simple maze in preparation for a race at at the Chippewa Valley Technical College (CVTC) Manufacturing Show Thursday, March 6.
The vehicle would hit one of the maze walls and stop, and sometimes a piece or two would fall off, sending them back to the computer for more reprogramming and repairs. Their entry was designed for speed and was programmed to turn after moving a certain distance. Others entries were designed to turn when hitting a wall, which sacrificed speed, while others employed innovative steering mechanisms. None of this was too much for middle and high school students to figure out, and they had a lot of fun doing it.
No one had more fun than Dodge and Decheine. After all their trouble in practice runs, on the second of their three official timed runs, the vehicle blazed through the course without a hitch in an amazing 5.12 seconds, easily running away with first place in the competition, which mostly featured teams from Menomonie and Eau Claire.
It was a great start for Team Reach, the River Falls robotics club just getting re-started after a two-year absence following the graduation of a core group of members.
“We came out here more for the experience and to meet other teams,” said Nate’s father, Steve Dodge, an engineer and advisor for the club. “We are just getting started at competitions.”
The maze race competition was part of CVTC’s annual Manufacturing Show, which showed visitors like the River Falls team just how interesting and fun manufacturing can be. Area middle and high school students were heavily involved in this year’s show. In the Junkyard Battle high school welding students created sculptures of fish out of scrap metal. In the Machine Tooling Technics area, students created complicated mazes. The robot races took place in the Electromechanical Technology area.
Visitors were able to don a mask and try their hand at welding, under the close watch and assistance of a CVTC student or instructor. People saw automated machines that could play guitar, set up bowling pins, and make a golf putt – all designed and created by CVTC students. The chair on the flight simulator moved with the banking of the plane on the screen. In the Nano Engineering Technology area, students demonstrated the properties of liquid nitrogen.
Nearly 40 companies from around the Chippewa Valley set up displays to show their company’s role in area manufacturing, and to recruit future employees.
“In the Chippewa Valley, close to 40,000 people make their living in manufacturing,” said CVTC President Bruce Barker in opening the show along with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. “Ninety-one percent of our graduates have jobs within six months, 89 percent are right in the state of Wisconsin, and 70 percent are in northwest Wisconsin.”
A major purpose of the show was to present the modern face of manufacturing.“If you go in our shops, they’re bright, they’re clean, they’re automated, and it takes a high skill level to operate the equipment,” said Associate Dean of manufacturing Jeff Sullivan.
To many of the young people attending, there was just a lot of fun stuff to do, like race those robots.
“It’s cool that we have the opportunity to work with technology like this,” said Nate Dodge.
“It’s always fun to reverse-engineer a problem,” Decheine said.
“The smallest error can have a snowball effect later in the course,” Nate Dodge said.
Steve Dodge further explained that in turning, the vehicle would sometimes skid, throwing it off course and creating a problem on the next turn. They had to slow down the speed to improve accuracy.
The relief on Nate and Nick’s faces was evident when the vehicle made it through the course. “I don’t think we ever came close to the walls,” said Decheine.
The club has just five members, but they are hoping to recruit more members, especially after a successful first competition.
“I hope it will grow and we can take part in more competitions,” said Decheine.
While the competitions were fun for many students, others visited the show to learn more about programs and opportunities. Jonathan Hurd of Fall Creek was eyeing up a new career by visiting the various program areas. “I’m interested in Electromechanical Technology, but I’d love to learn it all,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons I came, to get a feel for it all.”
Becky Larson of Eau Claire came with her husband and their son, Nick, who is in eighth grade. “I wanted to see what opportunities are out there for a job, and so many of the jobs that are coming up are going to be in manufacturing,” she said.
“Electromechanical Technology was fun with all the projects they do, like the ‘Smoke on the Water’ one that played guitar by itself,” said Nick Larson.
About 2,000 people attended the show, including Gov. Walker, who noted in opening remarks to an audience mostly of high school students that the Wisconsin flag displays the tools of manufacturing.
“It’s part of our heritage and our history, and it’s part of our future,” Walker said. “Manufacturing is leading our state’s economic recovery, and we need to encourage the next generation of workers by educating everyone about the great, family-supporting jobs available. These students are the future of our workforce; and by providing quality, highly technical training, we are setting them up for success and securing Wisconsin’s place among the top manufacturers in the country.”
Chippewa Valley Technical College delivers superior, progressive technical education which improves the lives of students, meets the workforce needs of the region, and strengthens the larger community. Campuses are located in Chippewa Falls, Eau Claire, Menomonie, Neillsville and River Falls. CVTC serves an 11-county area in west central Wisconsin. CVTC is part of the Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS) and is one of 16 WTCS colleges located throughout the state.