- Associated Press - Thursday, August 20, 2015

GRANGER, Ind. (AP) - Isabel Sautter used to build Lego robots with her teammates inside a portable classroom behind Mary Frank Elementary School.

She remembers feeling cramped inside the small windowless trailer. She and nine teammates spent hours inside, combining parts and pieces to create a robot they programmed to push, pull and even throw objects across a giant table.

In other words, the portable classroom space worked, but it was less than ideal.

“When we split into groups, sometimes it was hard to focus because we’d be so close to one another that you could hear what the other group was talking about and doing,” Sautter said.

But on Saturday, the now 13-year-old Discovery Middle School student delivered a presentation about what she’s learned from being part of a Lego robotics team for the past five years to prospective students and parents inside a vastly different space. A bigger space.

A space dedicated to robotics and all things Lego.

“I can already tell how much better it’s going to be. It’s so much bigger,” Sautter said enthusiastically about GEARS, a new nonprofit robotics studio in Granger. “There is more room to work and move around. And multiple teams can meet there at the same time, so we can get to know other teams from different schools.”

GEARS, which stands for Granger Exploration and Robotics Studio, opened its doors this summer to Lego robotics teams and students, like Sautter, from across the region.

Just weeks away from the start of the new Lego league season, GEARS director Scott Chase has been offering building tours and scheduling rental times and tables for Lego teams. Having been involved in coaching robotics for years, Chase knew there was a need for permanent space.

It was just a matter of finding the right place. It happened when he took his daughters shopping at the Granger Farmers Market, before it transitioned back to an open-air market.

“I loved the irony of bringing in modern day robots into a 100-year-old structure. Look at this,” Chase said, pointing to the wood pegs that hold the wall beams together. “There isn’t a nail in this place.”

So when the farmers market moved out of the building, he moved right on in.

Chase also relocated his company offices of Chase Homes into the barn, located at 12650 Indiana 23, at Granger Commons shopping plaza. He spent weeks scrubbing the floors, repainting and building wall dividers, cabinets and competition-size Lego tables.

There’s space for six robotics teams to be working at GEARS at the same time.

“I thought this space would only serve existing teams, but I’m quickly learning that we’re also going to be catering to new teams,” Chase said about inquiries and rental agreements. “The students are out there, but schools just don’t have a lot of space.”

St. Joseph County, in fact, has more robotics teams than any county in Indiana, said Brian Boehler, the regional director for the Ethos Science Center in Elkhart.

Between St. Joseph and Elkhart counties, there are 80 teams of students that regularly meet and compete. Some of those robotics students are without a permanent team home, he said.

“Its popularity has grown almost exponentially, with too many kids and not enough programs, teams and opportunities - or amenities,” Boehler said. He believes that will change as more teams learn about GEARS. “We’ve had waiting lists for summer camps involving robotics and STEM, because they engage kids with hands-on learning.”

Because competitive robotics is not year-round, GEARS will offer summer camps, clinics, training seminars and other robotics-related activities during the offseason. Chase also hopes to rent space to local 4-H clubs, scout groups and other organizations.

GEARS plans to hold an open house from 1 to 5 p.m. Sept. 5. More information about the center can be found on the GEARS Facebook page and at www.gears.org.in.

Greg Sautter, Isabel’s dad, has volunteered as a parent assistant ever since his daughter started in robotics five years ago. He even coached her Mary Frank team one season.

“Some schools have places for their teams, and some don’t. Schools like Mary Frank have used the portable classrooms for many years, other schools have used parent homes,” Sautter said. “The table alone can take up most of a basement.”

Having a designated space where teams like Isabel’s can store their Legos and not have to reset the competition table every time they practice and create, will be invaluable for the students, parents and coaches, he said about GEARS.

“There’s a growing interest in robotics in our area, and here’s a place you can go and investigate and build things and learn,” Sautter said. “Something like this in Granger is an asset to the community.”

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Source: South Bend Tribune, https://bit.ly/1E652lF

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Information from: South Bend Tribune, https://www.southbendtribune.com


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