Pass The Torch: Meet These Robot Wranglers

Feb 29, 2016

Training a new generation of effective leaders often involves mentoring through a shared passion. It involves someone with a strong skill set who is willing to help someone else feel the spark.

We continue our occasional series “Pass The Torch” in a workshop at DeKalb High School where the robotics team is getting ready to bring their creation to competition. 

His name - the Barbarian. He’s a few feet wide and a few feet tall and made of metal with a bumper sticker that says “Proudly DeKalb.” On April First, he’ll be set loose controlled from afar by several DeKalb High School students.

The students just put the finishing touches on their metal monster.

Getting to this point involved finding the right parts and specialists.

Noah Kimmel is a freshman at DeKalb High School. In competition, the robot will have to traverse rough terrain.

“I built all of the obstacles and all of the wood stuff in here. My dad has woodworked for years, and I grew up working with him.”

Getting the robot to move across those obstacle involves some serious computer coding. That’s where senior Matthew Lord comes in.

“I basically have to go through the entire code, and re-do all of it so it meets my standards for what something should be.”

Credit Jenna Dooley

But just don’t trust his taste in music. At least that’s among the do’s and don’ts listed on a dry erase board in the shop. It also reminds the team that “A hammer doesn’t fix everything,” and “Failure is the best teacher.”

Senior Bailey Flemming says her role is as a utility player.

“We’ve all helped each other a little bit. We’ve had to go through several wheels and we all work together to make those work, so I have had a little bit of a part in everything.”

That includes attaching fabric to the sides of the robot.

“My mentor’s mother taught me. Mr. Lofthouse’s mother Cindy Lofthouse taught me how to sew.”

That’s right. They aren’t doing this alone. Mentors from DeKalb High School and NIU’s College of Engineering and Engineering Technology have been guiding them along the way.

Cindy Lofthouse says she doesn’t know a lot about robotics, but she does know how important this group is to her son.

“This is my last year teaching. I came in 1979. It’s my son’s first year teaching. By doing the robotics, it really helps him connect with kids on another level. A lot of teachers, when they first start, if you don’t have that outside interest other than just inside the classroom, you don’t really see kids just really shine. You don’t see them take on that leadership. I think it helps make you a better, well-rounded teacher when you have some of those experiences with kids that aren’t just in the classroom.”

Her son, Michael, says it has been a great experience so far.

“My favorite part is, because of the level that these students are at, there’s a little bit of adversity, there’s a little bit of struggle, and then they come up with new ideas right away. ‘Let’s try this, they talked about this in class, let’s try it.’”

Credit Jenna Dooley

Adam Van Boekel is a junior mechanical engineer major at NIU. He competed in robotics when he was a student at Oswego East High School. He's helping the students implement their ideas.

“A lot of the tools learned here really help in college, especially project-based and working with a team are the biggest things that I think helped get me ahead in college."

Mentor Michael Lofthouse says it also prepares the students for their careers after college.

“It’s an opportunity for them to use some of that engineering experience kind of in a real world/time crunch [way] where you have to prototype, build, and re-design…It enriches my daily teaching experience, and it enriches their engineering experience. I think it is a great fit for pretty much everyone involved.”

Do you know someone who is "Passing the Torch" to the next generation? Please help us share that story by emailing WNIJ Managing Editor Victor Yehling at Just put "Pass the Torch" in the subject line.