ELKHART — The E3 Robotics Center has a home of its own in Elkhart, a boon for students and the community alike, organizers say. 

After separating from the ETHOS Innovation Center in May, the E3 Robotics Center officially opened at its new location Tuesday at 3709 Cassopolis St. on the city’s north side.

Brian Boehler, the center’s executive director, said the separation was needed when it became clear that the organizations were on different paths.

“We saw the path for where we wanted to take the robotics programs, and we both had a little bit of a different vision for what that looked like, and felt it’d be better for both our programs to pursue and continue focusing on STEM-based programs, but in two different locations,” he said.

The center’s mission is to provide youth robotics programs to students in grades K-12. The three e’s stand for exploration, education and engagement, which is the main focus for students and the community, officials said.

The not-for-profit robotics center will offer educational support for schools, teachers, coaches and mentors looking for FIRST or STEM-based training, officials said. It will also continue to look for local events to host a growing number of teams within the region.

Currently, the center has about 60 students, Boehler said, adding that he anticipates that number to gradually grow in the coming months.

About half the center’s students are home-schooled and the other half come from public- or private-school systems in Elkhart and St. Joseph counties and some in southwestern Michigan. Many of the students at the center don’t have a robotics program available to them or come from schools that are just starting to grow their program and have limited spots available.

“Last year, one of the school systems had 10 spots available for a robotics team and had 30 kids apply. So you now have 20 kids who don’t have the opportunity to be a part of the program,” he said. “And it’s great for us to have the space for these kids to come and form their own teams and as the program grows in the school system, feed them back into the school system and say now you’re large enough to support all of these students.”

Employers in the community are eager to close what they see as a gap in workforce skills, Boehler said, with technology playing an increasingly important role in many industries. 

One of the organization’s sponsors, ThermoDyne, provided the space and many of the materials needed for the renovation. Parents and students also played an integral part in the renovation process.

“Many of our parents and students went out to some of the refurbish stores in Elkhart County and picked up those items and helped sponsor our program with their own money – their sweat and equity went into this,” he said.

“It went from a very industrial space to a colorful open space now,” Boehler said of the building.

Hours of operation for the building are flexible and will serve students schedule, he said.

“I am excited to see our program step out on its own and with FIRST RISE 2020,” Boehler said. “I already see the local community supporting this venture and we appreciate its support.”

Mark Dill, who has two children in the program and two more who will be enrolled soon, said the E3 Robotics Center has been good for his family, even when it was affiliated with the ETHOS Innovation Center. 

“It’s not just about robotics,” he said. “It teaches kids to think and work together toward a goal.”

Dill’s daughter, Crystal, a senior at Northridge High School, said the program gave her focus. She plans to study engineering after high school.

“Most of all, I learned people skills,” she said. “They really helped me come out of my shell.”

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