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Robotics club hopes engineering interest grows

Students in the DuPage and Kane area Pwnage robotics club work with a robot they built for a national competition. (Kate Thayer/Tribune)

Students in the DuPage and Kane area Pwnage robotics club work with a robot they built for a national competition. (Kate Thayer/Tribune)

About 20 students from around the suburbs are hoping their interest in robotics is catchy.

Pwnage – a robotics club named after a gaming term meaning domination – began about three years ago and has grown to include students from several DuPage and Kane county high schools as a part of the Fox Valley Robotics organization.

The team is sponsored by Genesis Automation, an engineering firm in St. Charles, where they meet and construct robots for competitions.

The students say they’re passionate about engineering and when they’re not building their robot for competitions, they work in the community to spread the word, hoping younger students will also take to the subject.

“Everybody knows how to use (technology), but nobody knows how it works,” said Alec Pollard, 18, of St. Charles.

Pollard said he’s concerned that there are fewer Americans studying engineering and science compared to other countries. Like many on team Pwnage, he plans to major in engineering when he heads to college this fall.

Scott Hale, owner of Genesis Automation, said he decided to sponsor the team in part to encourage the youth in his community to learn about engineering.

Besides offering the students a space to work on their robot, Hale also teaches them about computer-aided design, how to use milling equipment and other things that go into robotics, but that aren’t necessarily topics in their science and math classes.

“This isn’t giving a fish, this is teaching them to fish,” Hale said. “Manufacturing is what built this country.”

The group is now completing preparation for next week’s FIRST World Championships in St. Louis. For the event, the team had to construct a robot that would shoot basketballs, and balance on a platform.

With mostly sheet metal, the students built their robot, which uses lasers, sensors and reflective tape to sense where to shoot and retrieve foam basketballs, explained Nick Coussens, senior at Batavia High School.

Since January, the students designed and built prototypes until they finalized their robot. They also built a second robot so they could practice even after shipping their 120-pound competition machine to St. Louis, Coussens said.

The team not only builds the robot, but is responsible for other aspects of their club, including budgeting, a website and business and marketing plans to recruit mentors, and fundraising.

Donated funds and materials pay for the competition and the construction of the robot, said Denise Haller, mother of club member McKenna Haller, a 16-year-old sophomore at Metea Valley High School in Aurora.

Haller said her daughter’s grades actually improved since joining the club.

McKenna Haller said since joining the club this year she renewed an interest in engineering, also joining Project Lead the Way and other engineering- and science-focused initiatives.

Beside competitions, the team attends summer festivals and other events to tell families about their club, as well as to perform community service activities, like Fox River cleanup events. Pwnage earned an award at a previous competition for their efforts in the community.

The club is also working with the Batavia Fire Department to fix a fire hydrant character robot that firemen use to teach safety to children, Coussens said.

To learn about the team, membership and its mentoring program, visit www.pwnage.foxvalleyrobotics.com, or search “2949 Pwnage” on Youtube.

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