Jada Beckett's eyes darted back and forth from the yellow industrial robot arm in front of her to the computer control she held in her hands as she typed a sequence of commands programming the robot to pick up a small white peg.
Typing things like "X+" and "Y-," Jada moved the robot's arm with precision Friday until it was directly over the peg and began to pick it up. This FANUC Corp. robot is a miniature version of what factories such as Volkswagen use to build cars, and Jada is one of nine students at Tyner Academy learning to program it.
She and her classmates will graduate with a certification in mechatronics thanks to a series of classes like this one.
The study of mechatronics combines mechanical engineering, computer science and electrical engineering, and Tyner is the only school in Hamilton County to offer students the sequence of courses that allows them to earn the specialized certification.
Most of the students who attend Tyner live in poverty, and only 1 percent of students who graduated in 2014 met all four college-ready benchmarks, according to ACT test scores. But the nine students now enrolled in this mechatronics program, and the 25 students who will be added to the program in the spring, will graduate qualified to enter several high-skill and high-paying trades.
Bryan Robinson decided to start the mechatronics program last year after teaching at the school for a year and realizing how bright and capable his students are and the innovative opportunities he could offer them.
"Mechatronics is something that is now and very relevant," he said. "These classes are giving the students so many opportunities for their future."
After traveling to a number of training sessions, Robinson is now certified to teach students how to program the FANUC robot. He said local manufacturing companies have a need for qualified employees, and they are offering good-paying jobs and opportunities to advance within their companies.
Pointing to the robot Jada was using, Robinson said Gestamp, an automotive component manufacturer with a plant in Chattanooga, is loaning more than $30,000 in equipment, including the training robot, to the program.
"Gestamp is investing in these kids' futures," Robinson said, adding Gestamp personnel told students, "If you have this certification and can train that robot, we will hire you."
David Cowan, director of career and technical education for Hamilton County Schools, said the program is "a prime example of how we can train our kids to be ready for the workforce, and once they get inside the industrial setting, the sky's the limit."
Students are able to learn on tabletop modules exactly what they need to know to program the big machines, Cowan said.
"It's a direct pathway into a high-paying job and career," he said. "You walk across the [graduation] stage on Saturday and show up to work on Monday, and then get a big paycheck the next week."
Cowan said starting and expanding programs like this is one of the school district's goals, because it offers students a specific set of skills that allows them to immediately thrive in a highly competitive industry.
"We see the importance and how manufacturers want this," he said. "[Mechatronics certification] is highly sought after and can lead to a high-paying position."
Brooke Williams, a sophomore in the class, practiced soldering wires together Friday. As she stripped the wires, she said taking the class was a career choice for her and the hard work it requires is worth it for her.
"I want to be successful," she said. "I know that with this I can be well-off and always find a job."
Derek Ormond said he would stay in Robinson's classroom all day working on the different robots and training equipment. He said he is one of the students that others ask for help, and he likes that.
"Working on robots in factories is what I want to do after high school," he said, as he plugged in a series of resistors to the analog trainer. "And here I am practicing."
Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at 423-757-6592 or firstname.lastname@example.org.