Navistar mentors Naperville robotics students

When Troy Clarke was growing up, the Space Race dominated culture.

 “Young kids like me wanted to learn about science and math,” Clarke said.

So schools from the elementary level up through graduate school focused on the science and math skills needed to send man to the moon and push for computers that processed information faster.

Today, science, technology, engineering and mathematics initiatives (STEM) continue to drive society, according to Clarke, president and CEO of Navistar. His company’s Lisle campus hosted the annual recognition evening for the Huskie Robotics team from Naperville North High School recently. 

As a sponsor of the club, many of Clarke’s engineers mentor Naperville North students and teach them skills they cannot learn in the classroom. For instance, robotics team coach Geoff Schmit said the school was able to get a grant for a mill students could use to craft parts for a robot, and it was a Navistar employee who showed students how to use the machine.

When addressing the more than 100 students, parents and siblings who attended the event Monday, Clarke said while the arts and literature are important to a society’s culture, it is technology that advances society. 

“Technology advances on an exponential scale and that’s because of you,” said Clarke, who noted he can’t wait for the day when he is approached by a Navistar engineer who says he or she became interested thanks to the robotics program.

Clarke said the proliferation of phone applications is an example of the exponential growth. He said his company has trucks with the ability to send a message to the owner’s phone when a part is failing. He said what used to be a $30,000 problem that could take a truck out of service for days can be fixed right away these days with a $300 part. 

Clarke said so many people spend money sending their children to sports camps. “How many kids go on to play baseball at the professional level?” he asked. 

Surveying the room of potential engineers, Clarke said the time and money spent on mentoring the students is so small comparatively to other expenses.

“This is a tremendous return on the investment,” Clarke said.

The Navistar employees who work directly with the robotics students already are seeing results. The Huskie Robotics team has grown to a roster of 80, and roughly 100 rising freshmen signed up to participate next year. 

Navistar engineer Ian Ren is more than happy to share his computer programming knowledge with students because he finds working with the teenagers quite fun. Ren said helping was easy because he knew many of the teachers already, since his son graduated from Naperville North.

Ren said so much of building a robot involves programming it to move in certain ways, so it is critical for students to understand how to write code.

Retired Navistar engineer Ed Tausk was looking for something to keep him challenged, and the robotics club fit the bill.

 “Knowledge not shared is wasted,” he said.

Tausk said the only way for students to learn is through trial and error, and mostly error. “You learn nothing from success,” he said.

“My function as a mentor is that of a guide,” Tausk said. “Many times I come back from a meeting with my tongue smarting because I had to bite it so many times.”

Jerry Lynch actually started helping out the robotics team before he was hired on at Navistar.

Fresh out of college, Lynch was hired by a small engineering firm that went through cutbacks almost as soon as he started. Forced to look for a new job, Lynch wanted to stay active during his search and contacted the local chapter of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, where he found out about the Naperville North team.  

“It just took one visit, and I was hooked,” said Lynch, who attended every competition. “I was learning alongside the students.”

When Lynch started, only a handful of students were involved.

 “Now there’s 80 to 100. It’s insane,” he said. “I’m not sure what we’re going to next year. Maybe we’ll have to have two robots.”