By Bill Poovey
They are part of a long championship run in mechatronics. These ambitious students design, program and build robotic controls and other high-tech gadgets in an Upstate classroom-laboratory. Learning in an environment that sometimes requires safety goggles, their skills have made the Pickens County Career and Technology Center a prime recruiting stop for manufacturers.
The program, which includes instruction in mechanical technology, pneumatic and hydraulic actuation, electronics control theory and computer programming, has had members win six straight Skills USA mechatronic titles as the nest team in South Carolina.
Hank Hutto, who has lead the mechatronics program in Pickens County for 13 years, said instructors at some other South Carolina programs have jokingly asked him on arrival at the annual competitions, "Who's going to finish second?"
"They kind of hate us there now," Hutto said.
In June, Pickens team members Brandon Hall and John Hayes after graduating from Daniel High School won the bronze medal competing at the Skills USA's 48th annual National Leadership and Skills Conference in Kansas City. They were also on a team of county students who successfully programmed a robot to build a prototype capacitor for Cornel Dubilier, an international electronics firm in Liberty.
Hall said he was following some friends as a 10th grader when he entered the mechatronics program but they left early and he stayed in. Standing in the lab beside a robot donated to the program by BMW Manufacturing, Hall said he would like to work for the automaker or some other manufacturer eventually.
"I like working with my hands, fixing stuff," Hall said.
Hutto said BMW donated the robot when they considered it outdated.
Both Hall and Hayes are now attending Greenville Technical College. Hayes also works part-time in capacitor manufacturer Cornell Dubilier's apprenticeship program while attending school, and said he has his sights on "working my way up" at the plant in Liberty. He said another member of the mechatronics team is also in the Cornell Dubilier apprentice program.
Cornell Dubilier's manager of product design, Patrick Lark, said he worked with the students on the "articulating arm robot" that the students modified. He said it holds a "tig welder and welds pieces of stainless steel together in a certain geometry," instead of a person having to manually weld. Lark said the robot is involved in production of prototype capacitors for a new product.
He said he enjoyed working with the students.
"We need skilled people out there," Lark said. "I am encouraged that the level of respect and the caliber of programs available at the career center have come up as far as they have. I think the stigma of a vocational school has hopefully gone the way of the wind."
He said all students "must be engaged and there must be excitement and incentive for them to want to strive for better. The private sector should be fully involved in supporting educators and helping guide where our advanced technology education is heading. Likewise, educators should be listening and seeking exposure for what the private sector needs."
Lark said the Pickens County mechatronics program, which includes students from Liberty, Easley, Pickens and Daniel high schools, is a magnet for industries looking to expand.
"Its says something to a company to know we are state champions here," Lark said.
A Pickens County High senior in the mechatronics program, Luke Stewart, said the class is more enjoyable to him than course like English or history because "you are actually doing it instead of reading about it." Stewart said he plans to continue at Tri-County Technical College at Pendleton then transfer to a four-year university. Steward said the career prospects pay "good money but I enjoy this personally".
Another student, Liberty High senior Ethan Ruiz, said he plans to attend Tri-County Tech and hopes one day to work with robots at BMW.
"I like doing car stuff," he said. "I'll basically know what to do when I get there."
Hutto said mechatronics students who are seniors are in the class for two hours every day.
Hutto said he runs an electrical business after school hours.
"I teach because I love it," he said.
Jackie Clarkson, executive director of Skills USA in South Carolina, described the mechatronics program under Hutto's direction in Pickens County as a consistent winner.
"They are right up there at the top," Clarkson said.
"The instructor plays a huge role," she said. "It speaks for his teaching ability and leadership. It is a huge factor in winning."
She said about 90 schools in South Carolina are involved in the Skills USA competition.