13 December 2023

Illawarra students explore STEM pathways with hands-on robotics and engineering program

| Keeli Royle
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Female students working on robot.

Students designed and constructed robots ready to perform a number of tasks. Photos: Keeli Royle.

High school students from across the Illawarra have learned to design and build their own operational robots from scratch as part of a specialised program to give the next generation a taste of the potential pathways if they choose to pursue a career in STEM.

TAFE NSW Start Your Future program, which is an initiative of the NSW Government and part of the NSW Department of Education’s Educational Pathways Program, offers a range of opportunities to explore unique avenues and for the first time in Wollongong this now includes robotics.

Mechanical engineering and drafting teacher Rod Lewis said, with the help of mentors from the Illawarra’s Project B’s Robotics Team, students have been able to engage practically through every step of the manufacturing process.

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“Robotics is the way of the future and can be a benefit to people, so just bringing these kids in and exposing them to this STEM stuff is really cool,” he said.

“They’ve been really hands-on, they’ve just gotten in there and used the power tools and it’s even fabricating the prototypes themselves and learning how to assemble things like nuts and bolts up to putting it all together and wiring and programming.”

It’s been a steep learning curve for many students who came in with an interest to explore the area but no previous background.

Four male students with robot.

The program helps develop skills and set up potential career pathways.

“I didn’t have any idea about robotics or stuff like that and then when I joined I slowly got the understanding of how to actually make a full-on moving robot,” Corrimal High School student Bhumisha Kumar said.

“I’ve learned a lot about electronics because making a robot is a lot of hands-on work and it’s a big project that’s been keeping us busy.”

“I always thought that robotics was a very daunting thing and quite complicated for very intelligent people but it’s brought to our attention that you don’t exactly need to be the smartest person in the world, you just need to have a bit of elbow grease behind you,” Lake Illawarra High School student Cayden Dawson said.

They’ve worked in teams to put their creations to the test through tasks like moving, picking up items and even attacking other robots.

“These guys are effectively doing what takes six weeks for a normal robot team to do in six days,” Mr Lewis said. “If they can get the robot moving, that’s good, if they can get it picking up something that’s really good.”

Students working on robot.

There is high demand for skilled workers in STEM industries.

“We’ve spent weeks building this thing and we figure it’s going to do one of two things,” Cayden said. “It’s either going to explode violently or it’s going to work like a treat – there’s no in-between.”

But even if their robots don’t win the class competition, the skills students have developed could prove particularly vital in getting a foot in the door in a growing industry.

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“It’s really important because unless they’ve got a trade-related family, it’s often hard to know what’s out there and there’s so much out there,” Mr Lewis.

“I’m teaching drafting students this year and they’ve been snapped up by the drafting companies like Bluescope is putting on a drafting position this year so it’s just going to go forward from there.”

The TAFE NSW Start Your Future program offers a vast range of courses to provide more broad opportunities to local students, with other subjects such as events, hairdressing and barbering, early childhood education, design and plumbing also available in the Illawarra.

To find out more about the initiative visit the NSW Government’s Education website.

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