Middle schoolers Owen Garee, of Green, and Dylan Snyder, of Lake, were working together to make the final adjustments to their robot for competition at Portage Lakes Career Center during the VEX Robotics Camp.

Two camps ran July 24 through 28 at the school. The first was a beginner camp and the second an advanced camp. Many of the campers attend both camps.

The team of Garee and Snyder found after programming the robot and making a trial run that the robot's wheels were not steady and were "whacky and wiggly," they said. They then tightened all of the bolts and nuts to keep the robot going in straight lines and staying on the course. 

The camp instructors are high school teachers and college students working with IST (Integrated Systems Technology).

Michael James, a tech teacher at Elgin High School near Marion, said they put competition into the days at camp.

"Anytime a kid can have competition they will learn and do better," he said.

James said critical thinking, problem solving and working as a team are important lessons the campers learn.

"If you look at any engineering or any project, you have to work as a team. It is not just 'hey I can do it all myself,' " he said.

James added they do, sometimes, match kids up as teams but for the most part the kids just sit down and start working together.

"It is amazing how few problems you have with that," James said. "A lot of them are kids from different schools and they don't know anyone. They start making friends."

The team of instructors travel all over the state doing camps throughout the summer.

Jarrett Taylor and Ben Casper were working to program code their robot to follow the course and pick up a cone and place it on top of another one. The boys explained that instructors are keeping score of each team's progress of different tasks to earn a ranking within the 12 teams.

The students at camp were from various school districts in the area and are going into sixth through ninth grade. This is the fourth year the robotics camp has been held at the career center.

Maria Schlenk, programming and software development instructor for PLCC, said on the first day the kids worked from an instruction book and parts and pieces to build their robots. Once they completed the robots, they use a game controller to drive them around and play with them. The second day, they competed going through mazes and picking things up.

"That was fun for the kids," she said.

Students also began programming the robots, writing a program in a language called Robotics C, which tells the robot how to move and what to do. Robots then are operated autonomously (without a human controlling them).

The STEM camp is primarily engineering and the students are hands-on in building the robots and using their creativity. During the programming or coding, logic, thinking step-by-step and control comes in to play.

"It is thinking logically, critically and problem solving," said Schlenk.

She said the students sometimes want to hurry and get the robot together so they can play with it. That is when they find out that the wheels might fall off and parts don't work. But they learn, Schlenk. 

"The more work you put in ahead of time the better the first results," she said. "Take time to do it right the first time and you won't have to redo it. They also learn interpersonal skills. You have to model teamwork and teach teamwork."

The last day of camp parents are invited to watch the competition between the teams.