Robotics in the classroom | Peninsula Daily News

PORT TOWNSEND — Nearly a decade ago, Port Townsend High School science teacher Tim Behrenfeld noticed many students were coming out of middle school with some robotics and engineering skills — and were eager to learn more — but the high school offered nothing to help them take their interests to the next level.

“The first thing I wanted to start was a robotics team,” said Behrenfeld, adding he connected with Austin Henry of Atlas Technologies, who had the same desire.

Port Townsend High’s robotics team was born in 2013, but for Behrenfeld, it wasn’t enough.

“I really wanted to get robotics and fabrication technology in a high school classroom,” he said.

He brought a couple of local engineers and fabricators together, formulated the course framework, and brought the idea to Principal Carrie Ehrhardt.

She agreed to start a one-day-a-week pilot class, if then-superintendent David Engle agreed to it.

Behrenfeld recalled that it didn’t take much to convince Engle. He found 13 used laptops for the project, and with the help of volunteers including Henry, Phil Pilgrim, Daryl Hrenko and Jed Bothell — plus a dozen small robots — the new course became a reality.

“Originally it was only one hour a week, but there were plenty of students showing a high level of interest in the CAD (computer-aided design), basic DC electricity and programming offered in the course. It was clear something more substantial was needed,” Behrenfeld said. “I submitted a proposal for a year-long class for the fall, and it was granted immediately.”

For the first six years, the robotics class focused on making and programming robots. Nowadays, Behrenfeld said, the course title is CAD and Computer-Integrated Manufacturing, and it focuses on using CAD software to program robots to manufacture products. The basic idea is to get students to become proficient in CAD in order to design projects, products or anything they conjure up. Once they have a CAD design, they move it to a laser cutter, 3D printer or 3-axis computer numeric control (CNC) milling machine, which converts it to a series of tool paths in order to make the parts.

Students do many other things in the class. They work on measuring skills and drafting, tool use, marketing concepts, sustainable design concepts, career exploration and safety, Behrenfeld added.

Many people think this class is the future of manufacturing, he said.

“Actually, it is the present. CAD and CNC have become so ubiquitous in manufacturing that both are involved with everything from jewelry design and production to modern boat construction, architecture and landscaping. Nearly everything you can think of that is manufactured today involves CAD and CNC machines,” Behrenfeld said.

“My mission for this class has always been to provide students of Port Townsend High School with as much exposure to these technologies as possible, to level the playing field with the larger schools,” he said.

“Fortunately, in the past four years, the district has really come to recognize the importance of this class, with the purchase of a second laser cutter and two Tormach 770M 3-axis milling machines.”

“Students, whether they want to be doctors, lawyers, or work in a vocational field, need to get exposure to a broad set of skills,” he added, “rather than a focus on one or two. This class will give them a chance to get some hands-on experience with tools and machinery that they most likely will encounter in their futures.”

After school, Behrenfeld also runs an underwater robotics team. This gives kids a chance to work together, using tools and technology to design and construct remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) to take to competitions.

Behrenfeld added he’s always looking for volunteers who have skills in using Rhino CAD, using 3D printers and running CNC milling machines, especially Tormach machines. Looking to the future, he’d also like to connect with volunteers who have backgrounds in sheet metal and composites.

Prospective volunteers and parents of students who might be interested in taking the CAD course or participating in the after-school activities can contact Behrenfeld at [email protected].

“There have been some amazing community volunteers that have graced the lives of hundreds of students over the years. I prefer to call them ‘education investors,’” said Behrenfeld, “because they know that their contributions will reap vast rewards for the future of our local community and this country. First and foremost would be Phil Pilgrim. Without his dedication and contributions — too many to list — this course would not nearly be what it is today. Other educational investors include Caleb Johnson, Marco and Miguel Salguero, Daryl Hrenko, Stewart Pugh, Carl Stancil, John Downing, Jed Bothell, Eric McRae, Steve Taylor, Lucas Hurt, David Crozier and so many others.

“I should also mention the incredible support from the Port Townsend Education Foundation, which has been with this project from the start, and the businesses that have been so supportive, including Turnpoint Designs, Edensaw Woods, Carl’s Building Supply, Arrow Lumber, Port Townsend Paint Co., Waste Not Want Not, Atlas Technologies and Bentley Systems of Pennsylvania.”

2021 graduate Cristal Gomez-Cervantes used a Zing laser printer in her computer-integrated manufacturing class at Port Townsend High School. (photo by Tim Behrenfeld)

2021 graduate Cristal Gomez-Cervantes used a Zing laser printer in her computer-integrated manufacturing class at Port Townsend High School. (photo by Tim Behrenfeld)