By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium
ST. JOSEPH — Members of the St. Joseph High School robotics team spent their summer tinkering with a Whirlpool washing machine.
The end result is a robot that no longer washes clothes, but instead shoots them out as far as 50 yards.
It was inside the Technical Education Wing at the high school where members of the team, the Average Joes, developed the T-shirt shooting washing machine robot.
In person it appears to be a normal Whirlpool Cabrio Top Load Washer. However, “Joe Washbot 1.0” is merely the outer shell of the washer. Inside the lid is a portion of PVC piping used to store the rolled-up T-shirts that are sent flying via a connected air compressor. Around the small air tank are a series of wires and tubing that keep the robot churning. Underneath the contraption is the robot’s chassis, a metal skeleton complete with wheels that have the ability to move forward, backward and sideways.
Not only did the robot drive system and programming impress SJHS industrial tech teacher and team coach Vic Vroegop, but the fact that these students came in during the summer to continue learning STEM material surprised him.
“The kids that we have on the team enjoy robotics and the opportunities that the mentors provide for them,” Vroegop said. “This is valuable enough to come for weekly meetings and spend their time learning during summer vacation. My favorite part is watching the kids have the ‘it’s alive’ moments. Watching kids realize this odd looking line of code is going to make a robot do what they want is great to see.”
The Average Joes began the project in June and finished toward the end of August ‒ two days before the Berrien County Youth Fair, where they would use that platform for the machine’s first public demonstration, during the fair’s robotics exhibition.
Senior Patrick Warren joined the team at the beginning of last year and said he has used this experience to learn a lot of cool stuff about robots and engineering as a whole. He says the idea for the robot was odd, but it came with merit.
Warren said many people have had an unbalanced washer and have seen one dance and walk when overloaded. Initially, that was all the team was going to make the washer do, but seeing it move around didn’t seem exciting enough ‒ there needed to be more action.
“We decided to make it shoot your laundry back at you,” Warren said. “It was up in our heads, but we never really put it together until we did the 3-D modeling.”
But why tinker with a washing machine in the first place? That’s easier to explain.
“It’s two fold. Whirlpool is one of our biggest sponsors ‒ they support us financially and a lot of our mentors are from there,” Warren said. “Second, a lot of the people on our team think of Whirlpool as a place after we go to college. Whirlpool is a tech company ‒ it’s a place for a lot of engineers and marketers.”
A majority of the team’s mentors hail from Whirlpool ‒ who specialize in not only programming, but marketing as well.
Brett Oleson, who works in sales for Whirlpool and spends plenty of off time as a team mentor, said robotics teams like these are growing in popularity.
“We’re still expecting more growth on the team,” he said. “We’ve had a number of students come up to us during the fair that were interested.”
While at the county fair, the team used the robot to show how fun it can be. Within minutes of showing it spin, dance and shoot, Vroegop said a crowd had gathered nearby as people began jumping for T-shirts.
“We’ll have it at new student orientation and football games,” the team’s coach said. “It’s a little bit of a marketing tool. This will help kids realize that technology and engineering is a fun thing to do.”
As an incoming senior for the 2015-16 school year, Seneca Masterson said she joined this summer and has been a big part of the robot’s programming. One of her roles was programming the robot’s commands to specific buttons on an X-Box controller, which is connected to a laptop with coding.
Through this programming, operating the robot is as simple as playing a video game. The Y button opens the lid, the A button shoots the T-shirt and the analog sticks control the bot’s movement.
“Programming is fun ‒ it’s like a puzzle,” she said. “You have to put all the pieces together in order for it to work.”
Vroegop said having fun projects like this is what makes robotics a “varsity sport for the mind.”
“Very few kids become professional football players, but in schools and society we put so much emphasis on athletics,” he said. “This is practice for real life because every one of these kids is going to need a job some day. These are real-world skills on display.”
(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Sept. 1, 2015)