SMALL TOWNS: Waupaca students wired for future in Robotics

The small-town team is in the big leagues thanks to the town's largest employer
Updated: Apr. 14, 2022 at 6:10 PM CDT
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WAUPACA, Wis. (WBAY) - Founded 30 years ago, it’s grown into an annual international high school robotics competition with more than 97,000 students making up nearly 4,000 teams representing 34 countries. And a number of high schools in Northeast Wisconsin compete in First Robotics, which takes place every spring.

This week in Small Towns, we travel to Waupaca where a rookie team is launching dreams thanks to the community’s largest employer.

At Waupaca Foundry, there’s been a major shift over the past few years. Robots now help manufacture more than one million brake rotors a year.

“The challenges that everyone is dealing with today, it’s not just Waupaca Foundry, it is several companies in our area and across the United States, we have to figure out ways to be more innovative and to reduce the labor because there’s just a labor shortage,” says Rob Johnson, Waupaca Foundry Executive Vice President of Administration and CFO.

Across town at the high school are potential Waupaca Foundry employees who can help curb that shortage.

They’re members of the brand new Waupaca Wired robotics team.

“We’re in the big leagues now and we owe it all to the foundry and the investment that they have put in to our program and our students,” says Waupaca Superintendent Ron Saari.

It’s an investment in the tens of thousands of dollars, spearheaded by lead mentor Dave Scott, who started a First Robotics program in Michigan before joining Waupaca Foundry last summer.

“You have roughly eight weeks to design and build and execute a robot that can go out and be competitive on that field and the kids have to work to deadlines, they have to work together and unless it all comes together at the end it’s not going to be successful,” says Scott, Waupaca Foundry Director of Tooling.

It’s a tall challenge for a squad that’s joining a fraternity of programs with decades of experience.

“Appleton for instance is team 94 I believe, or somewhere in the 90′s and they actually came in over 20 years ago, so we are not the highest numbered team, but rookie teams get the next number that’s available, so we’re team 8,700,” says Scott.

Today students are working on wiring their robot to compete in this year’s game which involves shooting an inflatable ball into a central hub.

But First Robotics is about much more than just building a robot and competing.

Ten foundry employees are volunteering their time to mentor students on all aspects of business, from safety and coding, to marketing and fundraising for future materials.

“One of the things with First Robotics, to run a successful program is approximately $30,000 a year, so we’re not going to go out and sell candy bars to raise $30,000 a year, so instead the kids are working with professionals in the industry to learn how to write professional letters to leaders of manufacturing companies in the area to request funding and explain to them what the benefits of them going through a robotics program like this are,” explains Scott.

While expectations are modest ahead of their first competition in Milwaukee, the 20 members of Waupaca Wired are proud to be pioneers of a new school legacy.

“I won’t be able to see the fruits that it produces, but maybe I’ll see it on TV in the future hopefully,” says Waupaca senior Jameson Powell.

A grateful school district sees a partnership already paying dividends-for all involved.

“What they’ve been able to do for our kids, for our families, for our district, for our community by partnering with us and exposing students to jobs of today and for the future,” says Saari.

“I’m already thinking about going into the foundry, I mean they pay well, but a lot of things they’re doing at the foundry is stuff I’m learning in school to do and it’s just a great job opportunity, literally for me a walk away from home,” says Waupaca sophomore Mark Reinke.

“That’s the hope is that we are developing that group of kids that are coming out of high school that want to go do this and do it for a living,” says Scott.

“So many different skill levels that are needed to run Waupaca Foundry and really any company for that matter and every position is important, and so we’re just trying to fill the skills gap and let people know that there’s opportunity right here locally,” adds Johnson.

Looking beyond Waupaca Wired’s rookie season is a relationship between the community’s largest employer and its school district that will only grow, and offer more students more opportunities.

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