Elston shares his passion as head of state robotics group

Chris Elston (right) of Huntington, talks with participants of a Girl Scout convention held in Indianapolis in November. Elston is serving as state president of Indiana FIRST.
Photo provided.

Chris Elston fondly recalls experimenting with a computer-controlled desktop robot while a student in an electronics program at Huntington North High School.

The class was taught by Jack Oberholtzer, a teacher who earned Elston's admiration.

"He was my inspiration for getting into what I do," says Elston, who now works in automation and industrial robotics.

Oberholtzer is now retired and, Elston says, the school's electronics program has fallen by the wayside.

But Elston is keeping alive the possibility of more students being inspired to learn about robotics by not only serving as president of a Huntington County robotics club but also as president of Indiana FIRST, a non-profit organization dedicated to strengthening math and science education through robotics competitions.

Elston, of Huntington, was elected president of the statewide organization - its initials stand for "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology" - in August, charged with leading approximately 30 Indiana robotics teams. Among his major goals as state president are getting Indiana FIRST incorporated as a not-for-profit organization to increase its chances of qualifying for a specialty license plate.

He's also worked with Indiana Workforce Development to acquire grants for the clubs, attended a Girl Scout convention in Indianapolis to demonstrate the robotics program and in February will visit the statehouse in Indianapolis to give state lawmakers an awareness of the program.

First, though, there's the big contest - a nationwide challenge to build and program a robot capable of performing a specific task. The contest is held every year, but this year there's a twist. The national organization has mandated that all teams use a new controller, the brain that runs the robot, "so that everyone is starting from a blank sheet of paper this year," Elston says. So in November, Elston organized a workshop in Kokomo to teach 350 young robotics enthusiasts to learn how to use the controller.

Back home in Huntington, Elston and 15 other volunteer engineers will help Team THRUST, the Huntington County 4-H special interest club, learn the skills they need to create a competitive robot.

It's a task he relishes.

"I can see how teachers really enjoy their jobs," he says.
The robotics program gives youth a chance for hands-on learning, he says, with the advantage of working alongside professional engineers. The engineers involved in the program come from diverse areas of engineering, Elston adds, teaching not only the youth but also their fellow professionals.

"We sometimes learn off of each other," he says. "We've gotten into some pretty complex physics problems ... As engineers, we take the knowledge we have and pass it on."
And then there's the excitement of building and competing with robots.

"We're really kids, too," Elston says.

Elston has been involved with Team THRUST since 2004, when it changed from being a Huntington North High School club to a 4-H club.

He's worked as a controls engineer for the past 14 years, using robotics to design automated machinery that runs factories. He's designed custom machinery for Kodak and for plants that make dog food, air bags and trash bags. He's even worked on printing presses. He's currently employed at Crown Unlimited Machine, Bluffton.

When he got involved with the club, he says, there were nine members. This year, he expects 30 to 35 youth to sign up. It's open to both boys and girls - the split is now about 50-50, Elston says - and to any age. The time commitment may be a bit much for middle school students, he warns, but the club can find something for everyone to do.

"If they're interested, we can generally find a place for them on our team," Elston says. One boy who joined as a sixth-grader, he says, became the team's expert in soldering electronics boards; a home-school student became the team's lead programmer.

TEAM Thrust gathered at Huntington University on Saturday, Jan. 3, to watch as this year's FIRST robotics challenge was announced.

Many of the teams nationwide met at a central location - or even travelled to New Hampshire, where the announcement took place - to hear this year's challenge. The Huntington team, Elston says, preferred to keep to itself so members can begin brainstorming as soon as the challenge was issued.

"The teams are very, very secretive about their robots," Elston says. "We're all scared everyone else is going to copy our ideas ... We would prefer not to have any leaks."

The team has six weeks to design, build and debug its robot before it must be shipped to Purdue University. The regional contest is March 19-21 at Purdue, with the best robots going on to the world championship in Atlanta, GA.