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PORTAGE — The Portage High School robotics team — the Portage Botz — is carving out a name for itself in the robotics arena.

Robots at the elementary level can involve design and construction, basic circuitry and even basic programming. Investing in a good robotic kit means exposing a student to mechanical design, electronics and more.

As a student moves on to high school, the focus is on design, assembly, electronics and programming.

The Portage Township Schools began offering robotics classes last year. This year, it offers robotics I and II at the high school. The robotics II class is composed of more advanced students, and they make up the Portage Botz team. There are several teams, including high school and middle school students.

Robotics teacher John Kappes said his students use VEX robotics components and began the first year participating in VEX competition, with the Portage Botz team winning the open division.

Portage has about 80 students enrolled in the robotics classes so far. The Portage Botz team participated in a tournament Dec. 3 in Indianapolis, earning honors.

The robotics class is offered to students under the school's Career and Technical program.

Kappes said as the world grows more complex, there is an increasing need for students to be proficient in STEM (science, engineering, technology and math) disciplines.

The students work together on teams in the robotics class, teaching them lifelong skills like teamwork, communication and project-based organization, Kappes said.

Kappes said he looked at other programs at local schools.

"Hammond's team (Team Hammond Beast 71) has been the gold standard," Kappes said.

"They participate in FIRST Robotics competition. In FIRST robotics, they fabricate their components, that means they build everything. At Portage, we buy the resources through a company called VEX, then we assemble and modify.

"When I journeyed into robotics here at Portage, I sought the mentorship of one of the top programs in the state also using VEX components. I modeled our program after Crown Point's. Mark Querry (Coach Q) graciously opened his facility to us and invited our fledgling team over for a visit.

"He's a big advocate of robotics education and has established the model program. In the past two years he's been a personal mentor and friend. Our teams have developed a strong camaraderie and even joined forces last year to be Indiana's state runners-up alliance," Kappes said.

Kappes said the robotics program is offering students a career pathway similar to other career and technical programs, and is considered an extracurricular team just like basketball or baseball.

Robotics season revolves around competitions

"Our competition is from August to April. The lab is open every day after school. We go to at least 10 competitions during the school year," Kappes said.

"Although engineering and robotics is typically a male-dominated career field, we do have two or three girls on every team," he said. "It's very intense, and it's a great experience for students."

Kappes said the competition is stiff and students go before a panel of engineers to talk about the decisions they made in creating their robot.

"They are required to document every aspect of the project from conception to tournament, including their design, team biographies and include mechanical drawings of their bot," he said.

Following competition, the team returns to the classroom looking at how they can improve their robot.

Portage junior Payton Bailey said the competitions are "super fun." She said she intends to major in civil engineering at Purdue University and she wants to work for Disney.

"It's really great how much the program has grown in such a short period of time," she said. "Each of the teams also adopts an elementary school, and we work with the younger kids on robotics and coding."

While he likes building the robots, Portage junior Stephen Kapalko said he truly enjoys programming.

"Initially, I wanted to be an engineer but after taking this class my focus in college is going to be more on robotics," he said.


Education reporter

Carmen is an award-winning journalist who has worked at The Times newspaper for 20 years. Before that she also had stints at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., The Post-Tribune and The News Dispatch in Michigan City.