Building blocks to robotics

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From the May 2014 issue of Columbus CEO

Like many founders, 23-year-old Michael Vawter founded his business to solve a problem. As a 10-year-old, he was constantly in trouble for leaving on the lights. The natural solution? Build a Lego robot to flip his switches for him.

“That’s when I learned I could use robots to solve problems,” says Vawter, a senior at Denison University. His passion for robotics resulted in his leading his middle school Lego Robot team to two international First Lego League championships. While still in high school, Vawter began staging Robot Academy Lego Mindstorms robot camps around Columbus in order share the fun, learning experience with kids aged 6-14.

Robot Academy camps have been going strong for eight years. Vawter presents an average of five to 10 camps every summer at locations in Dublin, Westerville and Gahanna. He squeezes in additional sessions when he can during college breaks, and says he has begun having employees run camps on his behalf.

Vawter’s payroll averages between five and 10 instructors, some of whom are older than him—including his mother, Gail Vawter, camp director and principal at IT support firm Tech Solutions Now. Managing older employees has been his biggest challenge in running his business. “I think it all comes down to the power dynamic you establish,” says Vawter, a leadership and organizational psychology student who strives for a collaborative, empowering environment at Robot Academy. “It’s easier to lead people who are significantly older than me if I’m letting them feel a lot of control.”

Vawter’s youth works in his favor in terms of bonding with the aspiring engineers in his classes—about three-quarters of whom are boys. Vawter finds satisfaction in taking on the role of mentor; students who excel are invited back as paid Robot Academy instructors.

Robot Academy has no sponsorship agreement with Lego. Lego Mindstorms complete kits retail for $349, with sensors, parts and processors ranging from $19.99 to $149.99. Robot Academy supplies all the Lego Mindstorms parts kids need to construct their own models during camp. Vawter has paid for the kits on his own, investing Robot Camp revenue into more supplies slowly over time.

The $95, two-day camps are growing in enrollment and popularity, says Vawter. “I’m very happy with where we are now, but I want to expand” in order to continue motivating young engineers, he says.

In addition to camps for ages 6-14 beginning May 31, the Robot Academy will also host a three-day junior Adventure Camp in mid-June for younger kids ages 4-9. Children are welcome to bring their own Lego Mindstorms kits. Registration is online at legorobotcamps.com.