2015, alumni, denison, july, ThisWeek, ThisWeekNews, westerville

Robot Academy to switch on videos

A Westerville-based camp, Robot Academy, is moving beyond central Ohio to create a global curriculum for students.

Since 2007, the camp has helped students ages 4-14 near Westerville Dublin, and Gahanna become familiar with the world of Lego robotics.

Now, Michael Vawter of Westerville, head instructor of the camp, is working on creating a curriculum to further expand the camp’s reach.

A series of instructional videos should be available in September to families, home-schooled children, schools and other organizations. They will offer step-by-step lessons in how to build a Lego robot, said Vawter, who himself was home-schooled in Westerville.

“We want to turn our little Westerville robot camp into something global,” he said.
Vawter has been building Lego robots since he was 9 years old.

“When I was younger, I was always getting in trouble for leaving the lights on in my bedroom,” he said. “So I built a Lego robot that could turn off my lights.”

Fast-forward five years to 2005 when Vawter and his Westerville team of home-schooled students won the international FIRST Lego League robotics championship.

“It was super exciting that our little team from Westerville had won and beat out teams from all over the world,” he said.

As Vawter grew older, he became more aware of what his robotics experience could mean.
“I realized I knew all of this information about robotics and that there was a huge population of kids who wanted to get involved in Lego robots but didn’t know how,” he said. “I saw kids who would buy the $300 Lego robotics kit but then it would just sit on their shelf because they didn’t know how to use it.”

With the help of his mother, Gail, Vawter started Robot Academy, where students learn about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) while using Lego Mindstorm EV3 and NXT robotics kits.

“The goal of the camp is to teach kids about robotics while helping them realize how fun and inspiring it can be,” he said.

During the camp, students often express to Vawter the desire to build robots that can help them with chores.

So through hands-on challenges, Vawter and the camp staff help the students design, build and program robots that are able to clear the table or pick dirty clothes off of the floor.

“We want kids to leave having a great experience building something they can be proud of,” he said. “It’s great when the kids realize they are problem-solvers.”

Vawter said he personally views robotics as being all about problem-solving and how throughout his life, it’s allowed him to build things to solve challenges.

No robotics experience is necessary for campers. All materials are provided and there is a 5:1 student to instructor ratio.

At the end of the camp, students participate in a grand finale where they take everything they’ve learned and compete in the “Lego Robot Sumo Battle.”

Regardless of the which robot survives the sumo robot war, everyone gets a trophy and ribbon.
“We try to set it up as a camp, not a classroom, where kids get to fight robots and there’s no way for it not to end up being fun,” he said.

After camp, several students have continued on to form their own teams, like the Incredibots, which went on to the FIRST Lego League championship.

“It came full-circle. They were campers, formed their own team, won and now they are instructors at the camp,” he said.

Vawter attended Denison University in Granville, where he majored in psychology and was vice president of the Entrepreneurship Club.

In addition to helping out at the Robot Academy camps, Vawter is getting his master’s of business administration in entrepreneurship at Seton Hill University in Pittsburgh.
Due to the popularity and positive feedback from parents and students, the Robot Academy camp will still be around next summer, he said.
For more information, visit robot-academy.com.

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