The mission seemed simple for eighth-grade students Ashton Armstrong and Marr’ion Singleton: Play pick-up sticks with one stick by picking it up horizontally, moving it to a vertical position and placing it about 6 inches away on a less than 1-inch target.

The challenge? Instead of using their hands, they had to program a robot to make the maneuvers.

Within 15 minutes the Armstrong-Singleton team accomplished the goal to the cheers of the other 18 students involved in the collaborative program between Alice Drive Middle School and Central Carolina Technical College at the Advanced Manufacturing Technology Training Center on Friday.

While all students enrolled at Alice Drive Middle School participate in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, or STEM, curriculum, administrators selected this special group to launch the next step in an already nationally accredited STEM program.

Once a week for six weeks, the students hopped on a bus for a 90-minute session of putting their skills to work. They learned to use Computer-Aided Design programs to design a series of widgets that they could use with a 3-D printer to turn the mechanical drawings into a model of the final product.

In another class, they used the same CAD to create another widget, but instead of using a 3-D printer, they used Computer-Aided Mechanics to transform a hunk of metal into their design.

Programming the robot represented the final challenge for the students.

Nancy Barron, a career specialist at Alice Drive Middle School, said the program introduces students to future job opportunities in the Sumter area and available courses at CCTC.

Local industrial leaders and Sumter Economic Development tout the Advanced Manufacturing Technology Training Center as a key component in creating a steady pipeline of employees trained to meet Sumter’s growing need for a STEM-trained workforce. High school graduates who work through a mechatronics program command $40,000 annual salaries, and some local manufacturers pay for their employees to complete at least a two-year program, which would allow employees to earn higher salaries.

Armstrong and Singleton said the weekly classes at the center allowed them to apply each of the science, technology, engineering and math skills to a practical use. It taught them a lot more than how to play pick-up sticks.

Central Carolina Technical College mechatronics instructor John Propst shows eighth grade students how to get started in programming a robot to pick up a piece of wood and move it precisely to a designated spot.
RICK CARPENTER/THE SUMTER ITEM