Wilson High School Robotics

The year we founded the Wilson Robotics Club, I bought a brick. Ostensibly, the brick money went to help fund renovations for the high school athletic track. But to me, it was both a dedication to our fledgling organization and a statement of faith that we would eventually make it work.

I founded the club the year my son entered high school. Sam has always been an incessant maker and a kid who loves to get his hands dirty. His room at the time was a disastrous mixture of bike parts, electronics, duct tape, and dirty clothes. My wife and I knew that we needed to find him a constructive outlet.

I connected with a parent who was involved in a robotics club at Benson Polytechnic. Tara raved about the benefits of the program and the enthusiasm of its volunteers. She was also continually impressed by the support they received from the ORTOP,1 the governing organization. Tara assured me that if we started a robotics program at Wilson, we would not only survive the experience, we would thrive. Long story short, a couple of weeks later I found myself presenting a gameplan to a room full of wide-eyed kids and their parents.

“Always ask. It never hurts to ask.”
Wilson Robotics Board Motto

The enthusiasm for the program was overwhelming. Parents stepped up and asked what they could do to help. Retired engineers came out of the woodwork to volunteer their time and expertise. The school principal found us seed money and gave us a place to practice. It was a wonderful and exciting time.

That first year, we were a bunch of eager smart kids and well-meaning, but disorganized adults. Through sheer brute force and ignorance, we formed a team, built a robot, and registered to compete in the FIRST Tech Challenge,2 an internationally recognized STEM3 competition.

Our first tournament was rough. Wilson earned no awards and was knocked out of the competition early. In fact, we ranked dead last. Egos were bruised. But the kids were hooked. Almost everyone returned the next year. Interest was strong enough that we added a second team. The third year, we added another. The fourth, yet another. As our club grew we became savvier. We made better decisions and started to see results.

“We like what that team did with their robot. But we can do it better.”
Sam Johnson, Team Captain

During my tenure as a coach, Wilson teams won a trophy-case-full of awards. We had teams routinely qualify for the State competition and then move on to Super Qualifiers and Western Regionals. The year after my son graduated, his team advanced to compete in the World Competitions in Houston, Texas.

I served four years as a coach and an additional year as a mentor. I worked alternately as a program advisor, mediator, counselor, chaperone, transporter of equipment, policy enforcer, grant writer, volunteer recruiter, writer of recommendations, requisitioner of parts, and party host.

Today, the award-winning Wilson Robotics Program is a valued member the of Oregon’s robotics community. We provide a vital social space for over 50 STEM kids where they learn valuable technical and team-building skills. Wilson fields four competitive teams that are supported by eight parent coaches, five industry mentors, and an army of parent volunteers. We introduce students to industry leaders, open doors to internships, and pave the way to college scholarships. We also have a ton of fun.

That brick was well worth the investment.

Fifth year milestones

  • Female representation in the program has grown from 8 to 30%.
  • Our first year we shared classroom space with the Ping Pong Club. Today, we claim two open-lab areas and a storage unit.
  • Our teams have earned a trophy-case-full of awards for design, innovation, community outreach, and professionalism.
  • Members have met with working professionals and have been exposed to the greater tech community.
  • Our members have landed paid internships at AutoDesk, Rockwell Collins, and Thermo Fisher Scientific.
  • Graduating seniors have earned sizeable college scholarships through FIRST.
  • Our teams have earned local, state, regional, and international recognition.
  • Wilson Robotics currently has a waitlist for membership.

Toolset

Coaching, mentoring, counseling, mediation, wrangling, volunteering, networking, recruiting, fundraising, program management, public speaking, delegation, logistics, requisitions, writing, carpooling, showing up and stepping up, asking questions, problem-solving

References

  • General Manager Kari Smith Haight
  • Strategy Coach Scott Koontz
  • Mentor Martin Waugh