4-H Club churns out engineers

Oct. 4, 2013
A husband and wife team up with 4-H Club to fill voids in STEM education.

In the corner of a large white room at TechWeek Chicago 2013 was a group of students playing with hand-built robots. It wasn't until I started talking to Jenn Griffin of Octagon Robotics, that I learned the students were part of the 4-H club. Obviously I've been out of the loop because I thought 4-H Club was in existence to churn out farmers, not engineers. I asked Jenn a few questions to help clarify. What I found was yes, 4-H has expanded, but more importantly I learned how Jenn and her husband took STEM education into their own hands.

What is Octagon Robotics?

"Octagon Robotics was started seven years ago by my husband and I, Tinicko Griffin, as a way to supplement the math and science skills our own kids were not receiving in the public school system. For several years, our team operated out of every room of our home: kitchen, living room, basement, garage, anywhere with available space! Bruce Peterson, a retired engineer, joined us as a mentor in 2011. In January 2012, Dennis Roberson, Vice-Provost with Illinois Institute of Technology, donated space to the team in the basement of a building on campus.

As a community-based organization, our program has survived through word of mouth from the students themselves along with community outreach events the team participates in throughout the year. All of the students attend different schools which sometimes can present interesting challenges. We use everything as a teaching moment, even our failures. For Octagon Robotics it is about more than the robot and the technical skills; it is about helping mold and shape young people into productive citizens in society. Skills like public speaking, time management, presentation, and leadership will carry with them throughout their lives regardless of what path they choose to take in life."

I see Octagon Robotics partnered with 4-H.  Can you explain how this partnership happened, why 4-H?

"4-H is the largest youth development organization. The idea of 4-H is to help young people gain skills needed to be proactive forces in their communities and develop ideas for a more innovative economy. Due to advances in technology, 4-H has expanded its programs to include engineering and technology. 4-H has developed a robotics curriculum to provide the basic skills needed to build robots of all types.

Two years ago, Illinois 4-H was looking to start expanding their robotics programs. At a competition, we met briefly with Lisa Bouillion Diaz, Technology and Youth Development Specialist at the 4-H State Office. During our discussion it was determined that Octagon Robotics would be a good pairing with 4-H. Many of the core values of Octagon Robotics mimics the values of 4-H. For Octagon Robotics the partnership allowed us to have a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit via the 4-H Foundation. Our not-for-profit arm helps with fundraising and sponsorship along with access to the 4-H resources."

Do you have any previous students who are now working as engineers?

"Currently we do not have any students working as engineers, but we do have two students considering a career in engineering. And, we hear our students talking about exploring engineering options when they graduate high school. In our early years, many of the students did not think college was an option, much less exploring college to become an engineer. Our goal is to show students from all socio-economic backgrounds that college is an option."

So, how did your season go?

"The 2012-13FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) season was an interesting one for the team. During the season, the team rebuilt the robot three times. Each time was an improvement on the drive system or the manipulator. The final robot Midnight was built in less than a month and ready for a competition in Kentucky. As a mentor, it is always about continuous growth and learning. At the Whitney Young Qualifier, the team won the Connect Award (most connected with their local community and the engineering community), and was runner up for the Inspire Award (represents a ‘role-model‘ FTC Team), Rockwell Collins Innovation Award (the most innovative and creative robot design solution), and the PTC Design Award (recognizes design elements of the robot that are both functional and aesthetic)!"

What happens during the off season?

"During the off season, the team looks for new opportunities to engage their community. This year we participated in an off-season competition, helped another team recruit new teammates in their area, and showed our robot at TechWeek Chicago and the Taste of Chicago over the summer."

How can the engineering community help?

"The team is always looking for sponsors and in-kind donations. Some of the team's immediate needs are computers, printers, tools, materials, and funds."

For more information, you can reach Jenn Griffin at [email protected].

For a list of dates of FIRST challenges in your area, visit

About the Author

Lindsey Frick Blog | Associate Editor

Lindsey serves a Associate Editor for Machine Design since 2012. She holds a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering from Cleveland State University. Prior to joining Penton, she has worked in product design, packaging, development, strategy, and manufacturing. She covers the materials market and other areas of interest for design engineers.

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