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Menomonee Falls middle school students learn to make robots — and friends

Jacob Beltz checks parts to see if the screw threads are stripped on May 7 as a group of North Middle School eighth-graders work on building a robot during their lunch hours.

Jacob Beltz checks parts to see if the screw threads are stripped on May 7 as a group of North Middle School eighth-graders work on building a robot during their lunch hours.

May 12, 2014

Menomonee Falls — For these kids, it takes seconds to do what it might take the average adult hours to figure out. But it doesn't stop there. Six North Middle School students are, on a daily basis, setting aside their lunches and free time in favor of computer codes and robots.

It started in mid-January under the guidance of Project Lead the Way teacher Scott Park, who said he did not expect the level of interest to become what it has when he first suggested the idea.

"I just wanted to tap into something they already seemed passionate about," said Park, who asked the students if they were interested after seeing their enthusiasm for LEGO League. "I had no idea it would explode to the point it has."

The idea has blossomed into what has become the North Lunch Robotics Club. Set in the Project Lead the Way classroom, the group munches on their lunches in between writing computer code and troubleshoots its creations using VEX Robotics building materials and RobotC computer language.

"There are some things they do with coding way more efficiently than I think I could," Park said.

Moving up

After successfully putting together a three-wheeled 18-by-13-by-8-inch robotic car — about the size of a toaster or toaster oven — the group has challenged itself to construct and operate a slightly larger 20-by-14-by-12-inch tank by the end of the school year.

Following design work, the students put together the robots by hand using VEX robotic kit tools and parts used as part of the Project Lead the Way curriculum.

"I have been just amazed at what these kids have done and are capable of making while solving the challenges of robotics — both computer code writing and mechanical assembly of the equipment," Park said. "Like the sun rises, they are here. This is their free time, and they are choosing to spend it here problem-solving and working individually as well as together as a team to come up with solutions."

These are among the skills Park said he hopes they take with them into careers in engineering, which several have already said they are interested in pursuing.

An exciting project

"It's so exciting to see everything come together," said eighth-grader Nate Valentine, who is planning to attend the Marquette Engineering Camp this summer for the second time. The group itself came together when it welcomed fellow eighth-grader Dustin Klessing to the mix about a month ago.

"I didn't know anybody when I started here," said Klessing, whose parents recently moved the family to the area from Iowa. "It was mind blowing to see what these kids were doing. I couldn't wait to become a part of it."

In doing so, Klessing said he has become good friends with fellow club members Valentine, Aaron Bath, Jacob Beltz, Evan Merlock and Ben Kraft. "Once I got to meet the people behind it, they started showing me more and we became friends."

Valentine and Merlock agreed. "The problem solving and brainstorming we do is so challenging and fun at the same time," Valentine said. "These things take a lot of time to work on, and it's so exciting to see when it all comes together."

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