PITTSBURGH – Max Inks says he is doing what he always wanted to do: "design things and build things."

Inks, 24, produces electrical systems used in 3-D printers made by The ExOne Co., based outside Pittsburgh. It's a job he was led to through building a robot when he was a high school senior in 2008.

The robot took part in BotsIQ, a robot slugfest sponsored by Western Pennsylvania manufacturers and educators as a way to develop young, technically skilled employees who can replace retiring baby boomers.

"It opens the eyes of students to amazing career opportunities that are out there for them," said Bill Padnos, Bots IQ executive director.

Teams of students are paired with local companies that teach them how to design and build 15-pound robots that can survive battles with robots built by competing teams. In addition to math, computer-aided design and other technical skills, the students learn budgeting, time management and how to make an affordable robot that works.

"It's the kind of experience they don't teach you at school too much," said Inks, who earned associate degrees in robotics and electronic technology at a community college.

Padnos estimates about 4,000 high school students have competed since BotsIQ was launched in 2006. This year, about 1,000 students from about 60 regional high schools have formed 80 teams that will face off at preliminary competitions starting this week.

Winners will advance to the finals in April. A national competition will be held near Cleveland in May.

Vocational teacher John Foust has supervised the BotsIQ team from the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf since the program was launched. The school's partner is New Century Careers, a nonprofit that helps regional manufacturers train workers.

Foust said New Century personnel supervise his students on machines used to make the robots. Students use trial and error to find out what type and grade of metal to use, and how to design a robot that will take a beating.

"Primarily what we do is problem solve," Foust said.

Jeff Kelly, the owner of Hamill Manufacturing, which is based outside Pittsburgh, came up with BotsIQ after learning of a similar program in Florida. Like other regional manufacturers, Hamill was struggling to find young, skilled workers and was looking for a way to get them interested in manufacturing.

BotsIQ teaches them that manufacturing isn't boring, that it requires skill and can pay well, said Phyllis Miller, Hamill's human resources manager. Today, about 50 companies in the region support BotsIQ including Chevron, which recently provided a three-year, $150,000 grant.

"If you build a relationship with a school in your area, it could be a pipeline to younger workers," Miller said.

The pipeline ended up being a career path for Alex Udanis, 23, a BotsIQ participant in each of his four years in high school.

"I was a pretty big geek in high school," said Udanis, who will earn an electrical engineering degree this spring. After graduating, he will intern at Teletrix, a company that makes simulators used to train people who do radiation detection work.

Udanis said his BotsIQ experience taught him more than engineering.

"It's been a huge networking experience, too," he said.


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