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PCC offers introductory course to help young women prepare for robotics competition

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Portland Community Colleges recent all-girls introductory machine robotics course included Tigard High School students India Silver (far left) and Tiffany Chu (third from left).Portland Community College wants to get students excited about robotics, and seven Tigard High School students were among 22 of the young women who hit the Sylvania campus to learn the basics behind artificial intelligence this summer.

“It’s one of our entry-level classes, geared toward familiarizing college students with all the machinery equipment and basic techniques we employ in our program,” said Alex Vins, one of three machine technology instructors who led the robotics camp program. Faculty members Patrick Kraft and Scott Stewart also teach the course.

Typically, it’s an introductory course commonly taken by students in various engineering fields.

“It’s a making class, rather than a theory class,” Vins said.

The girls who participated in the accelerated course got a chance to polish their machine fabrication skills — and it’s all in preparation for the FIRST Robotics Competition, founded by entrepreneur Dean Kamen in 1989 to revive what he saw as a flagging interest in the science and technology fields among American students. The national contest challenges teams of high school students to assemble a robot to perform an assigned task using a specific set of components.by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Megan Bachmann and Mary Oakley get hands-on training in robotics at PCC's all-girl introductory machine robotics course.

They have six weeks.

“(Students) can do marketing teams, fundraising, engineering teams, fabricating — it’s almost like an entire football team, as it were, except it’s focused on science, engineering, mathematics,” Vins explained.

With that in mind, PCC opened the class to high school students over the summer, accommodating teams, due to the fact many schools have eliminated machine shop and arts programs, Vins said.

“The kids that are competing on their (FIRST Robotics) teams have no place to fabricate and actually assemble the robots,” he said.

This year, instructor Patrick Kraft decided to create a girls-only camp. Robotics is a field that tends to be more male-dominated, and studies have shown that young women often flourish when taken out of a co-ed setting, Vins said.

“The feedback that I’ve received is that the girls really enjoy themselves,” he added.

The semester-long course is condensed into a three-week class that meets five days a week for eight hours daily.

The first week and a half of instruction focuses on theory and bookwork, with students learning the basics of drilling into metal and using various drill presses and hand tools. For the second half of the course, they move into the lab and work on three separate projects that involve the majority of equipment they’d encounter in a machine shop setting.

It’s useful groundwork, even for students who may not pursue robotics in the long-term. Even at the college level, the class is seen as an interdisciplinary course that welcomes burgeoning artists and architects alike.

A joint sponsorship between Mentor Graphics, the National Science Foundation, the Juan Young Trust and PCC covered $700 in associated costs per student, which included tuition and lab fees.

The students’ access to equipment continues after they have successfully completed the course.

“In addition to this course, they’re enrolled for 12 months in a projects class,” Vins said. “They can come in August, December, March — it’s waiting there for them.”

For more information about the program, as well as the FIRST Robotics Competition, visit oregonfirst.org.