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Engineering showcase brings students, manufacturers together

Robots roamed the atrium, the BT Mark I drone strutted its stuff, while the webcam atop a mini version of Mini Cooper followed visitors wearing bright colors.

The manufacturers of these clever products were south suburban high school students, who demonstrated they are eager to be the workforce of tomorrow.

They spent Friday morning exhibiting their talents to area companies during the first ever SouthWorks Engineering and Robotics Showcase at Prairie State College.

By bringing together the world of education and work, schools can find out what employers want, and students can learn how their classes provide job skills, said Janice Stoettner of the Illinois State Board of Education's Career Prep Network.

"There is no better way to get kids invested in education," she said, as she looked around the atrium filled with business leaders interacting with students.

"This is a fertile hunting ground for talent," Prairie State College President Terri Winfree said.

Mollie Dowling, of OAI Inc., organized the event with the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association, because she wanted companies to see what children are doing in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) classes, and encourage students to pursue careers in manufacturing.

She also hoped businesses would be inspired to sponsor larger projects at these schools, and ultimately a robotics competition in the fall.

"Manufacturers need to play a part in our school systems," she told the crowd in the college's atrium.

Industry representatives were impressed with all they saw, and stressed the need to get young people interested in manufacturing jobs.

"We have to get more involved with the schools," said Rock Rosati, of Whiting Corp., as he watched Bloom High School students work out the bugs in their own little Mini-Cooper with a built-in wi-fi system that could be controlled from as far away as Paris.

"The whole country is losing manufacturing and engineering jobs," Rosati said. "No one wants to build things hands-on. Everyone wants other jobs. We are having a hard time getting and keeping people."

Bloom High School senior Jorge Sanchez was eager to explain how he and a small group of students assembled and programmed the vehicle, took it apart and reworked it.

They wanted to meet with manufacturers to get different ideas and learn about different jobs.

"There are many uses for skills we learned by doing this," he said.

"People have the idea that manufacturing jobs are dirty and low paying and that's not true," said Kevin Thomas, chairman of the applied academics department at Homewood-Flossmoor High School. "Kids are learning that manufacturing today is not like working in your grandfathers' steel mill. These jobs are in high demand, but they require some skills."

High school instructors also wanted their students to realize not all good jobs need a four-year college degree, but may require some secondary schooling.

"The kids are doing some pretty cool things," Thomas said. "We want to get industry to work with us, to see what is happening."

Homewood-Flossmoor student Joe Eagle demonstrated his robot, Jacob, which was named after his cat but also stood for Just A Controller of Operated Bots. Jacob had the ability to scoop up four-inch diameter foam balls, send them up a conveyor belt and launch them three feet into the air.

Eagle said it took him all year to design and build the parts and program.

"It's a completely original design," said Eagle, who hopes to pursue a future in computer science.

His fellow students built marble sorters that would separate marbles based on color and weight.

"I am very impressed," said David Iwema of Mi-Jack Products in Hazel Crest as he watched the demonstrations. His firm, which is an industry leader in crane manufacturing, sales and service, is "constantly building equipment" to meet the needs of its customers, he said.

"What you are doing here will become real world," Iwema told the students. "Don't give up. There are opportunities out there."

Many students developed their skills in STEM classes or Project Lead The Way programs at their schools — all of which are designed to give students hands-on learning in engineering and technology fields.

Some high students hoped to get funding for an after-school robotics club, where they could let their creativity run wild and further develop their skills.

Crete-Monee High School sophomores Christina Gray and Trisha Baranski demonstrated their cookie/candy assembly line to manufacturers, which sent an Oreo cookie down a conveyor belt, stopping at a programmed point so a Hershey's kiss could be dropped on top of it by another mechanism.

For them, the chance to demonstrate their project to manufacturers at the showcase proved "that our work in the classroom really pays off," said Gray, who plans to study bio-molecular or chemical engineering.

Students not only realized they were learning valuable skills and self-discipline, but also the importance of manufacturing jobs.

A six-man team from Bloom's metal, auto, body and woods classes built a drone modeled after one used by the US Army and nicknamed it BT Mark I.

While they fabricated their own body, senior William Joyce, of Steger, noted that 40 percent of the parts had to be outsourced.

He said schools need to offer more training so outsourcing can be eliminated.

"We built America with our hands and our work. I want people to look at American ingenuity like they did in the 1950s. We need to bring manufacturing back here," Joyce said, echoing the sentiments of the business community.

Mike Wilson, the applied technology teacher at Rich East High School, was recruiting local manufacturers to be on his advisory board "to guide me to what they need to have students ready to work."

It was the first time his students had an opportunity to meet with manufacturers.

It wasn't enough that his students exhibited their use of the 3-D printer. Wilson wanted them to design something more meaningful than "trinkets."

They created key chains to demonstrate their support — and raise a few dollars — for Park Forest Police Officer Tim Jones, who was wounded in a gunfight with a burglary suspect last month.

"This is an impressive group of kids," said Ford Motor Company representative Doug Messana of this first ever showcase. "We want to make sure we have the workforce of tomorrow."

slafferty@tribpub.com

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