Essexville STEM center plays key role in making Bay County a regional technology and innovation hub

Basketball teams have courts to call home. Football teams have stadiums. Baseball teams have game fields, sometimes practice fields as well. However, robotics teams often operate out of closets and borrowed spaces not specifically designed to meet their needs.

Garber High School junior Carter Davis successfully used those points to argue that the district build a dedicated STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) facility. The meeting in November was packed with elected officials, the superintendent, and public attendees.

Graphic courtesy of Essexville-Hampton Public Schools“We don’t have anywhere specifically designated to the robotics team. It would be really nice to have a building where the robotics teams and coding clubs could get together. We would have a space just for this and nothing else,” Davis says.

Fortunately, Davis and the others who presented at the meeting were met with unanimous board support for what will be a state-of-the-art STEM center, offering a space for Essexville students and regional teams to collaborate, design, and compete. Other presenters included an Essexville-Hampton graduate who now studies in Oregon for her Ph.D.; she made the flight back because of the massive impact the robotics program had on her.
Currently, the district’s team, 5216, is operating out of roughly eight different spaces throughout multiple buildings. Robotics coach and chemistry teacher Ethan Shannon says, “Our stuff is all spread out. And we inconvenience everybody by taking some of their space, and they are very gracious, but we are impeding on their space.”

Shannon has coached the award-winning Cramer Junior High and Garber High School teams for the last 10 years, and during that time he has grown the program immensely, filling multiple classrooms with the equipment, power tools, and computers necessary for a competitive team. He also oversees the elementary Lego robotics program.

The Garber High School robotics team takes its 2023 robot to its first competition later this month. ​​​​​​​When Superintendent Justin Ralston joined the district in August, Shannon decided to ask him to visit Hemlock High School’s STEM facility.

“I convinced the Superintendent to go take a look at it with me. He said ‘I will go look, but I cannot promise you anything.’ Then the entire way home it was, ‘How are we going to get one of those?’ He was then able to sell that vision to the school board,” Shannon says.

Ralston admits he was impressed by the Hemlock’s facilities: “I have been in education my entire career, but I was absolutely amazed with that (Hemlock’s) facility and the impact it was having. It just seemed like the logical move for our school community. We are going to take the framework that Hemlock has done and look to make sure it fits our community.”

Building robots requires a machine shop as well as a computer lab. The new STEM center will hold both facilities in one building. Recently the district accepted a bid from architecture firm Sedgewick and Ferweda, so the real planning will begin, including meetings with stakeholders and the board of education. Ralston and Shannon agree on the STEM center’s location, but the finer points of the design, timeline, and the cost of the project remain to be seen.

“From my view, the two most important things are that it is on the Garber-Cramer property, and, number two, that we don’t take away from any of our practice fields for students as we are already a bit limited. We have a couple of options on the property that would meet that criteria,” Ralston says.

Building a robot, such as this creation by the Cramer Junior High team, gives kids practice at real-life skills.Shannon adds they need a large shop area with ventilation, outlets, 220v power, multiple classrooms for CAD (computer aided design), 3D printing, programming, and Lego robotics, and a large, high-ceilinged practice field.

“The new STEM lab has to have a practice field. Practicing in the library is really hard for us. We are fortunate to have this carpeted area, but when we get to full-on practice in the next few days, we have to move every piece of furniture from this room to the wooden floor. Then they will practice and then move all of the furniture back. Half our practice time is spent moving furniture.”

Senior Cody VanSnepson, lead programmer and main driver for the team, agrees whole-heartedly that the dedicated practice space will allow them to better utilize their time, though they are very thankful for use of the library. He and the other programmers gather after school at a table in the library, and he looks forward to a separate space to complete the detail-oriented work.

“We want one room that has everyone focused on computers so we don’t have all the noise and the congestion that the library sometimes gets,” VanSnepson explains.

The team has been working long hours since this year’s “game” was announced in early January, creating and constructing their robot, creating the practice field, programming, and trying to authentically practice prior to the first competition on Thurs., March 16. The team has seen great success recently and has qualified for the national-level competition in Houston, Texas for all five of the most recent competitions.

The new STEM center will serve the Cramer Junior High team, seen here, Garber's team, and help other schools in the region.Shannon recognizes there are many misconceptions about what the robotics teams create and why the center is needed. “Our robot is a 5-feet-tall, 160-pound robot that moves at 25 miles per hour. This is not a toy on a shelf. There are at least a thousand man hours into that machine.”

Shannon estimates that about $10,000 has gone into the bot, with almost all parts being designed and handmade by students with use of the CNC machine and other equipment.

Building robots requires a machine shop as well as a computer lab. The new STEM center will hold both facilities in one building.“It’s everything you wanted education to be: you get to learn and make mistakes and fail and figure out how to solve problems in real life.” Shannon adds, “It also teaches the kids about competition. It’s so important that they understand that there are winners and losers. It shows if you work hard you can get rewarded, but sometimes even if you do work hard, you still don’t get rewarded.”

The benefit of the new center to Essexville’s students is undeniable, but the larger goal is to welcome in other teams from throughout the region to advance the thinking and competitiveness of everyone involved. Both Ralston and Shannon feel that creating a regional center that could be the hub of all things STEM in Bay County is vital.

Shannon says, “When you look at the great teams in the state, they are clustered around Grand Rapids and Metro Detroit, and they are hubs of engineering. It's not a coincidence that you have many, many great teams producing many, many great students in the same area. Having great teams around pushes teams to do more than they would have done otherwise. If we are ever going to compete seriously with those other teams, we have to do the same thing here. We have to build a network of centers where other teams or schools can interact. We have to move the entire region ahead … everybody has to come.”

While the Board of Education was able to set aside funds dedicated to project start-up and grants are available for some additional funding, Ralston says they will need help from the private sector to fund the entirety of this endeavor. He and Shannon are hopeful that the community will see the value in it.

“I think it directly aligns with the local goals that our region has around talent management and attraction and having talented, high tech, skilled workers in this area to support industry in this area. If we can grow our own in this area, it would be a huge benefit as well,” Ralston explains.

Ultimately, it comes to the kids, according to Shannon: “We want to give the kids a place they can feel proud of. We want our own place that can be their home as well.”

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