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Workforce Development

University program to prepare students for advanced manufacturing

WPI's robotics program, geared for middle and high school students, integrates the fields of robotics, engineering and manufacturing to better prepare them for potential manufacturing careers.

By Paula Owen December 14, 2019
Courtesy: Cincinnati Incorporated

A robotics program led by WPI will help prepare the next generation of advanced manufacturing employees with the skills they need through summer and after-school programs, giving them hands-on experience and training in collaborative robotics.

The program, geared for middle and high school students, integrates the fields of robotics, engineering and manufacturing with the cutting-edge work being done in the WPI Manufacturing Engineering Labs.

Torbjorn Bergstrom, director of the Haas Technical Education Center, said the program will provide opportunities for two- and four-year college students to assist as program instructors. The program debuted this fall, and will run in the spring semester as well with after-school programs, and will continue next summer with the release of the CoBot for Kids program at WPI’s Launch camp.

The project combines a Massachusetts Manufacturing Innovation Initiative (M2I2) grant for $82,000 that funds the two collaborative robots for the program; an Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute grant for $100,000, and $120,000 in funding from WPI.

Bergstrom was inspired by an earlier program where WPI trained over 400 displaced workers as computer numerically controlled (CNC) operators and put them back to work. That program was a huge benefit to WPI undergraduate students who taught the technology to the displaced workers, he added.

“The students are the ones most easily able to do that, and they gain experience when they are hired as engineers to train people on this technology,” he said. “It gives our students a big benefit to be able to train people on this when they go into the workplace. It helps WPI make better engineers, and the middle and high school students get excited about tech careers in this area.”

Creating a pipeline

Bergstrom said robotics technology also helps promote manufacturing, both in the region and nationwide.

“Any manufacturer that is not able to understand technology is going to fail,” he said. “It’s going to be much easier for Massachusetts to attract manufacturing if the talent pool understands the technology. WPI is priming the pump.”

Nationwide, manufacturing represents more than 50% of the gross GDP, he says. Through directing manufacturing jobs, that includes people who work in retail sales selling what is made, investors, and vendors.

“Without manufacturing, local people wouldn’t have those jobs,” he said. “Manufacturing creates new wealth, and we want to have it here instead of outsourcing it offshore.”

Automation creates jobs

For small- and medium-sized manufacturing companies, he explains, automation actually creates more jobs by making the companies more profitable, resulting in a larger operating budget that allows them to hire more people.

“With large manufacturers who automate, jobs may be lost, but with smaller companies that automate, ‘Jim and Sally,’ who work six hours a day, can now do higher-value jobs after the company automates,” he said.

Robotics and STEM

In 2009, WPI expanded its offerings to include robotics programming for students in grades 4–12.

“Since the inception of these programs, the demand for these types of programs has consistently and significantly outpaced the number of spots we have available,” said Sue Sontgerath, director of Pre-collegiate Outreach Programs (POP) at WPI. “This grant will serve to integrate the concepts of robotics and manufacturing for middle and high school students.  From that perspective, we are excited to be able to offer a new and unique option for participants.”

Sontgerath added that offering the program free of charge to participants also aligns with the mission statement of the POP.

“WPI’s Office of Pre-collegiate Outreach Programs provides high-quality STEM programming to K­-12 youth and their families—with a special emphasis on broadening access and increasing interest in these fields among groups historically underrepresented in STEM,” she said. “We provide collaborative, project- or inquiry-based enrichment experiences that inspire exploration and discovery, while establishing a pathway into STEM disciplines.”

Robotics is an especially valuable way for kids to explore and discover a passion for STEM because of its interdisciplinary nature, Sontgerath said. Through robotics, program participants explore concepts from mechanical engineering, physics, electrical engineering and computer science.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI)

– Edited by Chris Vavra, associate editor, Control Engineering, CFE Media and Technology, See more Control Engineering workforce development stories.

Paula Owen
Author Bio: Paula Owen, Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI)