Building Bridges ... and Robots
In the past, there has been a lack of opportunities for Putnam County youth in robotics. Whether it was building and developing robots or entering robotic competitions, there was a void.
But that void no longer exists, thanks to programs sponsored by Georgia-Pacific and the Putnam County School District.
The Putnam County FIRST Robotics Team was started two and a half years ago when GP Training Lead Engineer Robert Knutsen noticed the lack of such a program. Knutsen said he worked at another mill with a robotics program, and he wanted to do the same at GP’s Palatka mill.
Knutsen said the University of North Florida referred him to Renaissance Jax – a nonprofit organization dedicated to inspiring and elevating technology culture throughout Florida – and from there, the program took shape.
Renaissance Jax helped supply materials and support, introducing Putnam County to the FIRST Progression of Programs. The first year of the program in Putnam County then began at Palatka High School.
“We got a donation from the Georgia-Pacific Foundation and it started up a club at Palatka High,” Knutsen said. “I sponsored it the first year, not just financially but providing mentorship.”
This year GP is sponsoring three teams: The Palatka High School team, the Interlachen High School team, and the Palatka Girl Scouts team. The school district itself has helped start several LEGO robotic programs at several elementary and junior high schools throughout the county as well.
“This may have been something that started at Palatka High, but it has grown momentum and flourished with the help of numerous people in GP as well as within our school district,” Knutsen said.
The highlight of Putnam County’s robotic program will be Saturday when the Northeast Florida FIRST Tech Challenge League plays its last official meet of its season at Palatka High School, marking the inaugural FIRST Tech Challenge robotics competition in Putnam County. The meet will be 8 a.m. – 4 p.m. and is free to the public.
At the competition, Putnam County students will have a chance to face off against other robotic clubs in the state, but Knutsen said the value of the program goes far beyond competitions.
“The robotics club I see as something kids love doing. They don’t get a grade; it is just something they do for fun,” he said. “What is really cool about it is they see you can still have fun and work, too.”
Knutsen said GP has supported the program and Renaissance Jax with vigor because they see the value in investing in Putnam County’s youth. They are able to witness this value firsthand when the students in the program visit the mill with Knutsen to see the real-world applications of robotics.
“The first year did really well. The kids really enjoyed it, and we saw the opportunity at the end of the competition season. So we brought them to the mill, and they demonstrated what they built to our mill management,” Knutsen said.
But the program can do more than simply show students the wonders of robotics, Knutsen said. It can have long-term effects on the students of Putnam County as well as on GP.
Knutsen said the school district has asked GP in the past how students could gain employment at the mill after graduation, and one of the big goals of the robotics program is to build that bridge from high school to GP.
“For me, this is a way some of these kids hopefully one day will come and work for us,” Knutsen said. “I am working currently with our current workforce to train them. But for me, it is a lot easier to catch them at the high school level and catch their interest in it and train them.”
Knutsen said he sees the program as GP’S investment in the future. And on Saturday, the community will be able to witness with their own eyes how the investment is starting to pay off.