Making the Grade: Robotics comes full circle; student becomes teacher

In 2005, Jon Welsch was president of the robotics club in his Forsyth County high school. “We made little Erector Set robots and entered robotics competitions where we’d build huge ones,” he recalls. “Every January, we’d compete with different schools. That’s what got me going on this track.”

That track wasn’t being an engineer or designer. Instead, Welsch so enjoyed working on the team projects that he earned a degree in career and technical education from UGA in 2012 an immediately went into the classroom. “I knew I wanted to come back and work with the next generation of students,” he said.

In 2013, Welsch started teaching at Forsyth’s STEM academy, and three years ago, he became the engineering and tech teacher at North Forsyth Middle. Neither of those jobs would have been possibilities before he joined the robotics team, something Rick Folea knows as well. Folea, a senior tech marketer at Automation Direct in Cumming, was there when the robotics program kicked off in the county. His son, Chris, had worked on a robotics project at North Forsyth High, and he and his friends, including Welsch, wanted to start a team to enter competitions.

“I quickly realized it wasn’t just about robotics,” said Folea. “It was about getting students engaged in learning through competition. My son had never touched a robot, but he wound up at [Savannah College of Art and Design], and now he’s a fulltime animator.”

Folea went to his employer and asked for the backing to support robotics teams in every county school. The idea flourished and with the company’s assistance, grew into the Forsyth Alliance.

“It’s a farm system, if you will, that gets kids from elementary and middle schools into these programs in high (schools),” said Folea. “Almost all the funding comes entirely from Automation Direct. These are after-school, extracurricular activities and some of these competitions cost $5,000 to register. We can help with that and things like travel and parts - things that would be stumbling blocks for the schools. We do it because we believe in the idea hat if you get a young kid involved in a program they’re interested in, it gets them exited to learn. Kids go from sitting in class with a glazed look in their eyes to ‘I have to learn this stuff to make my robot work.’ ”

Today, Welsch said, robotics programs flourish in the county’s five high schools, 10 middle schools and about 15 elementary schools. “That came about because Automation Direct saw the value of our program way back in the beginning,” he said. “They wanted to get it into all the schools.”

The teams enter contests on an almost monthly basis and face off with students from around the world. About two dozen teams have won spots at national and world competitions. Last year, Welsch coached six teams, all of whom went to state finals; two went to the nationals. The teams’ successes have spurred more interest across grade levels, he added.

“In my program alone, I had 50 7th and 8th graders last year. I also have 240 students in classes where we do robotics, too. Having it in class has also changed my numbers; last year, it was 60-40 boys to girls, and this year, I’m looking at the opposite. Robotics have really become a big part of what the students do here, and I love seeing what it does for them.”

Folea is happy to see that an idea from a handful of kids has mushroomed into meaningful learning. “There are now schools running more than a dozen teams in the same school, even at the elementary and middle levels,” he said. “Jon was on that very first team, so the program has come full circle.”

Information about the ForsythAlliance Robotics teams: facebook.com/ForsythAlliance.