June 11, 2004

A room full of delighted faces watches in awe, as they listen to a story whose leading character works with state-of-art robotics and travels the world tunneling through the mountains of Switzerland, building water systems in Singapore, and mining in South America…
To you, this may sound like the opening night for the next James Bond film, but it’s actually a visit by Michael McCourt, President of D&D Automation, or one of his employees, to a school involved with the Youth Robotics Program.
The Youth Robotics Program began in 2002, spurred on by the vision of Scott Bannerman, a Physics Teacher from Stratford Central High School.  He wanted to see the Rams Robotics Team from Stratford Central compete in the FIRST (For Inspiration, Robotics, Science and Technology) Robotics design and construction competition.  The school was able to receive partial funding by the CFDC through a special Industry Canada grant.  From there, the name Youth Robotics Program was derived and built into the school’s existing FIRST Program, which provided youth a six-week opportunity to develop skills that will help them design, construct, program and automate a robot.
However, Stratford Central needed something more in order to get their ideas and robots put into motion; they needed mentorship.  When they received their grant, they were connected to two major sponsors and supporters:  D&D Automation, which specializes in state-of-the-art industrial automation procedures; and Novotronics, another automations and robotics company, specializing in the aerospace and defense industries.  Both would end up giving youth the opportunity to work hand-in-hand with technology to inspire an appreciation of science and technology, and teach them how mastering the skills involved with such an industry would enrich career opportunities.
The long-term benefits of such an initiative for the rural community are limitless.  “It’s rewarding being able to make someone aware of an opportunity they didn’t know was there,” said Michael McCourt.  He explained that his company has already changed rural economics by making youth aware of the skilled trades and technology careers in the local community.  “That’s when all the doors open.  In five to ten years from now, we’ll feel a big impact from what we’ve done.”
Peter Van Drunen, CEO of Novotronics, humbly stated that the connection he has to the Youth Robotics Program is the result of the lead D&D Automation has taken in supporting local high schools, by encouraging the involvement of the company’s human resources to bring exposure to the robotics and automation industry.  Van Drunen, who grew up in the Perth County region, added that it’s important for youth in more rural communities to be given the opportunity to learn new skills, especially in the area of technology.
Those coming out of technical programs today have a desire to come back to the area and raise families.  Being that D&D Automation is a good example of a business that has “grown up” in Perth County, it allows many of those who grew up there or would like to come to the area, an opportunity.  “They are the largest single employer of engineers in the Stratford area, employing 60-70 engineering staff, which is a tremendous resource base,” said Van Drunen, who added that D&D Automation "represents a diversification within Perth County and provides options for those who are interested in technology, and who would like to stay in the region.”
Business and academic partnership programs in schools, such as the Youth Robotics Program, not only increase awareness of what career opportunities exist, but also help youth experience the meaning of teamwork, and helps them build confidence and self-esteem.  “There’s a whole teamwork aspect youth miss out on in rural schools,” says Scott Bannerman.  He adds that a lot of students would have to wait until post secondary school to get similar experience, which is important to gain before leaving school, in order for them to “see what’s out there”.
A big part of developing confidence and integrating youth into society is involvement in the right way, explained Peter Van Drunen.  The "right way" is providing the opportunity for kids to take part in extra-curricular programs, so that they can interact with businesses within the educational system.  He added that it’s important to gain an understanding of knowledge and apply what they’ve learned to the here and now, so that they may apply that knowledge throughout their lives.  That’s why mentorship is so important.  It reaches kids faster and helps them see that a technological career is real and attainable.  One of the mentors, a female employee at D&D Automation, made a big impact in regards to women in the engineering field, when she gave a presentation at Listowel District Secondary School.  The female students at the school, which benefited from the expansion of the CFDC’s support in the 2003-2004 year, could put a real face to the industry, said McCourt.  “What we’re trying to do in the program is make these prospects real,” he said, adding that for youth of both genders, "Here’s something that’s cool, that can be a real job”.
Blair McKay, a Technology Teacher at Listowel District Secondary School, agrees that it is important to make people aware of the possibilities that are out there for them.  Although Listowel District has not taken part in the FIRST competition, they’ve been able to develop their own program at the school from the materials, human resources, and mentorship that D&D Automation has provided.  A variety of “E-days” and workshops in an electronic lab has introduced the grade 8 students at the school to robots and programming.
Since the program’s inception in 2002, it is clear that its existence is vital not only to the career choices of youth and the economic development in rural communities, but also to the development of new skills and confidence.  The Youth Robotics Program has inspired principals, teachers, the Avon-Maitland school board, local industries, and kids to inspire other kids.  It represents a successful demonstration of how businesses and educators can work alongside one another to provide a practical, hands-on learning opportunity with a powerful message.
Most importantly is the number of people who have benefited from the project, and the proof is definitely in the numbers.  The twenty-two students, who started Stratford Centrals Rams Robotics Club and competed at the FIRST Canadian regional competition in their second year of support and sponsorship, took their new skills and impressed over 500 Grade 7/8’s at the Huron-Perth Sci-Tech Olympics with a robotics demonstration.  These same individuals inspired two high schools in neighbouring Huron County (Goderich and Wingham) to kick off their own robotics projects in 2004
The Youth Robotics Program is about skills being put to work by kids and, ultimately for other kids, who are motivated by committed individuals who want to make a difference.  It’s about bridging the gap between the real world and education, to raise awareness during a key part of an individual’s life.  It’s selfless.  It’s inspiring.  It’s an example of how making leadership a key focus can support a business, a school, and an individual to achieve success.  You can’t do that without leadership.