Building the future of robotics in Boulder County
By Lucas High, Staff Writer, Times-Call
Several dozen teenagers stood around the perimeter of converted warehouse space in Longmont looking on as a roughly 100-pound robot zipped around, performing acrobatic turns and deftly scooping up modified milk crates before depositing them in wooden baskets high off the floor.
Many of those watching — local high school students in the St. Vrain Valley School District — looked nonplussed. They'd seen this robot in action countless times before.
They built it.
Some of those teens — members of the 1619 Up-A-Creek Robotics team — will likely represent the future of robotics, engineering and computer science in Boulder County.
As the area's reputation as a hotbed for robotics and technology companies has grown in recent years, so too have local efforts to groom the next generation of highly skilled workers to create and staff these firms.
Collaborations between students, schools, mentors and industry representatives have formed a pipeline that connects enterprising young people to employment opportunities in the technology space. It's a mutually beneficially system that's providing local kids with access to good jobs and local companies with a highly skilled workforce.
Getting a head start
"I absolutely think that robots and AI (artificial intelligence) are the technology story of the next 20 years, at least," said Tim Enwall, CEO of Boulder-based Misty Robotics.
If young people want to be a part of telling that story, it's key that they are exposed to principles of design, coding and programming as early as possible.
Misty has developed a new personal robot called the Misty II that requires basic programming skills to operate and is targeted at developers, entrepreneurs and students.
"One of my foundational startup philosophies is to skate to where the puck is going — ideally where there is a large wave ahead of us," Enwall said. "Robotics is one of those waves."
The company recently launched a crowdfunding campaign to help fund a production run and to spur interest in Misty II. That campaign reached its 30-day goal in fewer than two days, Enwall said.
"We have had all kinds of parents with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) students — and even a bunch of teachers — reach out and reserve their robot," he said.
Craig Rahenkamp, a former aerospace engineer and current mentor at the Innovation Center of the St. Vrain Valley School District in Longmont, said, "Over the past 15 or 20 years, there has been a lot of passive consumption of technology.
"As educators, we are really trying to get away from that," he said.
Rahenkamp added that working with robots is a great way for students to engage actively with technology.
"Whoever is designing technology has a tremendous amount of influence and power," he said. "We want our students to be on the front line of people who can do that design."
The Innovation Center in Longmont — launched in 2016 with funding from a $16.5 million Race to the Top grant — offers a variety of opportunities for students to participate in robotics projects.
Aileen Ma, a Niwot High School senior who is headed to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the fall, is working with fellow students with the center's Aquatic Robots team to build an autonomous watercraft that uses sonar to map the bottom of lakes and reservoirs.
"What I've learned at the Innovation (Center) has really helped me feel prepared," Ma said. "A lot of the times the people who get these types of opportunities are people who have connections in labs, people whose parents are professors. But not everyone has those connections."
'Real-world professional experience'
Left Hand Robotics, a Longmont-based company that has developed an autonomous plowing machine called SnowBot Pro, provides workspace for the Up-A-Creek squad and often hires team members to work as interns.
Company cofounder Terry Olkin, whose son, Zach, is on the team, said robotics students "have already experienced issues that you would only come across in the real world."
He added: "The kind of things they are learning are what employers are actually looking at."
Axel Reitzig, computer science coordinator at the Innovation Center, said youth robotics programs are "opening doorways for students that wouldn't otherwise have that opportunity."
He added: "What we do here is pretty unique — we're trying to provide that real-world professional experience."
The center contracts with clients such as the Denver Zoo and Boulder County Open Space to allow students the chance to work on projects with real applications and real deadlines. Students workers even take home a real paycheck.
"We didn't want students to have to say, 'Hey, I'm really interested in this, but I need to work and save for college,'" Reitzig said. "We want them to earn money using their brains and their skills."
Up-A-Creek, which has about 60 members, is organized like a mini-corporation. There's a student board of directors and there are divisions such as operations, engineering and fabrication that give team members a chance to find a role that fits their skills and ambitions.
The team, which placed third out of more than 400 squads last month at the 2018 FIRST Robotics World Championship in Houston, even offers non-technical roles for students.
Chelsea Bandi, a sophomore at Silver Creek High School, is the Up-A-Creek's director of operations, handling the team's bookkeeping and making sure everyone is in the right place at the right time.
The team "has really given me the chance to break out — I've always been kind of a shy kid," Bandi said. "Plus, I've really had a chance to learn skills that I could use in business. I could become an accountant — a lot of people have told me I'd be great at that."
Students and mentors with both Up-A-Creek and the Innovation Center stressed how helpful robotics programs are in building "soft skills" that can be put to use in any type of workplace.
"You get to work on your communication skills, social skills," Niwot High sophomore Esther Xu said. "You learn how to collaborate with other people when you're working on a project."
She added: "Things don't go smoothly all the time, so this helps us work on being patient, keeping pushing and working hard."
Kassi Butler, a recent University of Colorado Boulder graduate, was a member of Up-A-Creek while she was a student at Niwot High.
Personifying the mission of local organizations dedicated to fostering an interest in technology and developing the skills necessary to work in the field, Butler stuck around Boulder County after finishing her degree. Following graduation, she secured a mechanical engineering job at Boulder-based First RF and serves as mentor for local students interested in robotics.
"I knew that I liked physics and I knew that I liked math, but I think the idea that engineering was an option hadn't really occurred to me until I got involved with robotics," she said. "Had I not realized (engineering) was an option or something of interest to me, I'm not really sure what I would be doing right now. So, I want to make sure these students have a full understanding of what their opportunities are."
Butler said participation in programs such as robotics teams can an important resume builder for students looking to break into the tech and engineering fields.
At a recent job fair at CU, she met a student who was interested in a internship at First RF. The two soon realized they had something in common: The student had been an Up-A-Creek team member several years after Butler's tenure.
"We had been talking for like a half-hour, and she was great. I hadn't even looked down at her resume," Butler said. "But when I did (look at her resume) and saw Up-A-Creek on there, it was awesome.
"Now, she's going to be our intern — she's actually going to sit in my office next month."
What makes Boulder County unique?
It's no secret the local tech industry has been growing for years.
"The Boulder County area — and really the whole Front Range — is being compared to places like Silicon Valley, and that's crazy," Up-A-Creek team member and Niwot High junior Noah Feldman said. "It's amazing and I'm lucky to have grown up here."
How has Boulder County become a global technology and robotics hub? Part of the answer is pretty simple: This is a place where people really want to live.
Misty's Enwall said the area's natural beauty and recreational opportunities provide for a lifestyle that Silicon Valley just can't match.
"They enjoy the outdoors and they are active," he said of many robotics company staffers.
While Boulder County has one of the most expensive housing markets in the area, home prices have yet to reach levels seen in Silicon Valley, where many tech companies are headquartered. This, combined with a relative lack of comparable traffic, help make Boulder an attractive alternative to Northern California, Enwall said.
Boulder County's spirit of cooperative entrepreneurship is also a draw for robotics companies, experts say.
"It's a very, very tight and helpful community of entrepreneurs that really relishes helping each other," Enwall said. "I think that's a very different ethos than you get in Boston or in Silicon Valley, where it's just more competitive."
Once a company opens up shop in an area, it can be a magnet for others in the same industry. A snowball effect begins when employees of these firms start families.
"These people simply demand from the community and from the school district that their kids have STEM learning opportunities," Olkin said.
Those kids — perhaps some of the students at the Innovation Center or Up-A-Creek — then go on to found their own tech companies.
"Boulder County is a great place to start," said Michelle Tran, a Niwot High senior who will study computer science at CU next year. "It's great to be able to make connections with local companies here."
Zach Olkin, an Up-A-Stream team member and a Niwot High senior set to attend the engineering school at Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), agreed.
"There are so many tech companies and startups here, that it provides great opportunities for kids to do internships and use the skills they learn at school or on robotics teams," he said.
'Well-equipped to go into industry'
Companies in tech industries are hungry for well-qualified talent. A late 2017 report from CU indicated that there are roughly 500,000 unfilled computing jobs in the United States.
"When I was in industry, we were trying to hire technical professionals, but there just weren't enough of them," Innovation Center mentor Rahenkamp said. "Trying to find people and also foster diversity in the workplace was very difficult."
Teresa Ewing, formerly an optical engineer and currently a computer science instructor at Niwot High and Up-A-Creek mentor, said she faced similar challenges in the private sector.
There have even been instances when companies have recruited robotics students still in high school, she said.
"People are really interested in people who know how to use their hands and build things, who know how to collaborate," Ewing said.
Students from Boulder County are flooding into colleges and universities to get an education that can lead to jobs with six-figure salaries very soon after graduation. Training in fields such as robotics help them get a leg up on the competition.
"I tell people all the time that some of the kids coming out of (local high school robotics programs) are better engineers than people I graduated (college) with," Butler said. "Our top students are very well-equipped to go into industry."