Wausau High School Gets New Advanced Manufacturing Equipment for Tech Ed Program Thanks to Grants and Industry Partners
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The helping hand being sought by manufacturers to fill gaping job openings may be attached to a robotic arm.

That’s the latest addition to the technical education department at Wausau West High School – brought to reality through a partnership with local manufacturers.

A combination of $50,000 in contributions from Schuette Metals and C-Tech Manufacturing, along with a $30,000 state grant, enabled the school to acquire a FANUC robotic arm, a Skill Boss training system and a programmable logic controller (PLC).

“We value our partners,” Jon Winter, the district’s tech ed coordinator, said. “They allowed us to apply for a grant to bring automation and robotics into our program.”

Winter said the school has been building on aspects of its technical education for years, aiming to prepare a workforce that will see millions of jobs lost to – and created by – robotics in the years to come.

Theran Peterson, a tech ed instructor at Wausau West, said the high school’s tech ed program teaches students how to “program for simplicity and efficiency.”

“We’re trying to turn kids onto it because if we can get them excited about it, (Northcentral Technical College) has a phenomenal robotics program,” he said.

Peterson – who sees about 150 kids per day, not counting those who stop by just to hang out in the tech ed rooms to have lunch – said all these efforts serve as a gateway to a diverse variety of industries.

According to a World Economic Forum (WEF) study, 60% of companies in consumer goods and in oil-and-gas (industries) will lose jobs to automation.

Conversely, Peterson said WEF shows the info-tech sector expects to see a 60% growth in jobs due to robotics.

Wisconsin, according to a study by the American Economic Association, is among the Midwest states that have seen an increase in jobs created by the adoption of automation.

“I’ve been meeting with Northcentral Technical College (NTC) to set up dual-credit classes,” Winter said. “These are classes that can be taught at the high school level but follow a curriculum by a particular college campus, in this case, that of NTC. It’s a way for high schoolers to kill two proverbial birds with one educational stone.”

Tweaking program as needed

Peterson said though Wausau West has followed national curricula regarding its tech ed program, he’s found that building in flexibility has enabled him to reach more students.

The school, he said, has developed a competitive arm as well, with nearly two dozen students participating in the school’s VEX Robotics teams.

Wausau West fields five teams for the competitions, which are held all over the state, regularly qualifying for the state championships at the end of each season.

VEX, Peterson said, sees about 20,000 high schools from 50 countries participate in its tournaments.

He said others, such as FIRST Robotics Competitions, add about 3,300 more schools and 83,000 students from 31 countries.

Peterson said the boost in the number of kids exploring tech education comes from a confluence of interests.

“We’re seeing a blending of the traditional shop kids and the engineering kids,” he said. “Because what does manufacturing look like today? It used to be that you’d be at a lathe working knee-deep in metal shavings, but that’s not the case anymore.”

In fact, Peterson said it’s imperative shops maintain clean facilities because of that high-priced machinery.

And beyond the FANUC arm, the Skill Boss trainer – which Peterson said is basically a clear box containing some moving parts the teacher can manipulate to create any number of problems – lets students diagnose issues with an automated system, then explore ways to fix it.

It’s all part of a holistic approach to the evolving economy, he said.

“With our (fabrication lab), they can study the flow of design through creation,” he said.

Peterson said the Fab Lab, as it’s called, can turn out everything from engravings to vinyl cutting.

The school’s 3D printer, he said, shows students how automation can not so much eliminate a job but reallocate a resource by freeing up time.

“I can spend a couple of minutes programming,” he said. “And then let it run all night.”

As the economy and the manufacturing sector evolve, Winter and Peterson said Wausau West, as well as other school districts throughout the country, are grateful for local stakeholders stepping up to equip the next generation to fill those roles and requirements.

“They want our students,” Winter said. “And they’re helping them make career choices that align with our community’s needs.”

This article was originally posted as Schuette Metals, C-Tech lend an arm to local tech education, by Jerry Rhoden.

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