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Donors, Students Usher in St. Joseph Robotics Center

Photo by Photo Caption: Members of the Average Joes robotics team join Edward Todd for pictures during a groundbreaking ceremony for the Edward J.Todd Innovation Center at St. Joseph High School on Wednesday. 

ST. JOSEPH — As several people pulled chunks of dirt out of the ground near a St. Joseph High School parking lot Wednesday, Vic Vroegop was busy distributing handshakes.

Vroegop was in a good mood watching donors, school board members and students get their photos taken with various golden shovels because it meant St. Joseph High School’s robotics team – the Average Joes – would soon have their own robotics center.

Referred to as the Edward J. Todd Innovation Center, plans for the 7,400-square-foot robotics center were announced during a St. Joseph school board meeting in February. It wasn’t until Wednesday that the project officially kicked off with a ground-breaking ceremony.

Vroegop has been involved with the Average Joes since the team’s inception in 2010. After becoming the team’s head coach eight years ago, Vroegop said it’s hard to believe the center is nearly a reality.

There was a thought that what we were starting was the right thing for the students and the right thing for the community,” Vroegop said. “Did I think it would get this big? Positively not. There are few times in life where you feel momentum come together like this.”

Superintendent Ann Cardon told the crowd of bystanders that the district and SJPS Foundation had been actively seeking donations since fall. Among school officials, the center is considered to be a big step toward advancing science, technology, engineering, arts and math education within the district.

“Our football team has a stadium, our swimmers have a pool, our budding culinary folks have a beautiful state-of-the-art kitchen. And now, our robotics kids are going to be the envy of everyone,” she said.

Cardon said the district plans to have the center completed before next year’s robotics competition begins.

When the blueprints were revealed to students, Cardon said it was fun watching their faces when they learned what would be inside the center, which will include a multipurpose space and kitchenette – for those long nights.

“Parents feed these kids. They’re here from right after school to sometimes 10 o’clock at night. They needed someplace to eat and sit down,” Cardon said. “…The support our kids get from the community and mentors on their own time is just amazing to watch.”

The center will be next to the high school’s Career Technical Center, with access from Lakeview Avenue on the back side of the high school grounds. The building will be used primarily as a training facility for the district’s robotics program.

A rendering of the center was sitting on an easel near the podium where Cardon spoke Wednesday. On the other side of her was the Average Joes’ travel trailer and T-shirt launching washer bot – which shot apparel into the crowded parking lot toward the end of the ceremony.

Among the members on the robotics team who were excited to get to work inside the center was junior Zoe Downey.

Zoe is entering her third year with the Average Joes, but admitted she almost didn’t join the robotics team. As a theater student, Zoe gravitated toward robotics in an effort to connect with her late grandfather, an electrical engineer.

“It’s really cool that I have this skill now,” she said. “It’s cool that we’re getting things that are just as supportive as the athletic facilities. I know that we’re going to get a lot of use out of it.”

The Average Joes have progressed to the FIRST Robotics World Finals the last four years. The St. Joseph team is one of several area schools that regularly advance to the World Finals.

In 2010, the St. Joseph robotics program began with about 20 participants. It has since grown to nearly 50 students, Vroegop said. Students from second through 12th grade participate in the program each year, which means they are coming in more prepared due to the lower-level robotics programs. 

A Big Project

SJPS Foundation President Bill Marohn said this is the largest project the foundation has ever undertaken since its inception in 1996.

The foundation has been able to give back about $2 million to students through various grants and programs. However, the robotics center will cost more than $1 million.

The fundraising aspect of the project included having robotics mentors and students tell their story in an effort to reach new investors. This included meeting with a group of local manufacturers that came together for the big pitch.

An outlet for technology
Edward Todd  

Out of the donors who were the most impressed was Edward Todd – the project’s lead donor whose name will cover the center’s entryway.

As a 1954 graduate, Todd was already a major benefactor within the district. He is responsible for six $5,000 scholarships given to students each year who choose to focus on business.

“We wanted to think about the future,” Todd said after the ceremony. “This is a good way to focus on the high-tech industry that I don’t know too much about. It’s a changing world out there.”

Merlin Hanson was another large donor for the project. He said centers like these will help lead the manufacturing industry into the future.

I think we have the young talent to really develop the mechanical side in our area,” Hanson said while at the podium. “I see this as a great opportunity for this area overall. It will bring more people into the shops, locally.”

Tom Shaw

Technical Education Post, Online Publisher

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