When most people think about robots, they probably don't picture the loud machine shop located at Portland Community College's Sylvania campus.

But the manufacturing shop is a vital part of the robot-building experience for high school students across the Portland area, who are attending a free three-week robotics camp this summer.

'I've always liked to tinker and build stuff,' said Thomas Woodward, a Tigard High School junior. 'The other day I took apart three hard drives just to see how they worked.'

Students wear safety goggles as they stand behind large machines shaving off pieces of metal into shapes. It's all practice for this spring when the 25 students will compete in a robotics tournament known as FIRST.

FIRST competitions are quickly becoming a big deal in high schools across the state - including Tigard and Tualatin - where students build robots to compete against each other at state and regional competitions.

'The whole goal is to teach us how these machines work and how to properly use them,' Woodward said.

Sponsored by FIRST, the PCC Sylvania summer course gives 25 students the edge on the competition, and is a great way to get kids interested in engineering and technology, said Dan Findley, the division dean for math and industrial technology at the school.

Findley said the program helps students understand the importance of math, science and technology education.

'The biggest complaint students have is 'how does this figure into my life and why is it meaningful?'' he said. 'But when you're building something, you actually can figure out why angles are important and use models and plans and work at a high degree of precision.'

Precision is something students in the class know well.

'The stuff we build here has to be exact down to the thousandth-of-an-inch,' said MacKenzie Gray, a 16-year-old Tigard High School student attending the camp. 'When you build parts, if it's off by even a little bit then you can't interchange pieces. It's real-world situations like that we're learning here.'

Monday's special guest

PCC's camp is attracting more than just area high school students.

Brad Avakian, state labor commissioner and democratic candidate for Oregon's 1st Congressional District in 2012, made a visit to the camp on Tuesday as part of his campaign.

'This is just one of the best examples of providing pathways to high school kids,' Avakian said. 'They learn a little something about the trades and a little something hands-on about science and technology.'

While he applauds the community college's efforts to work with area high schools, he says he'd like to see engineering classes and machine shops like PCC's in high schools.

'If you go back 15 years, there was something like this in every high school in the state,' he said. 'But we've systematically eliminated them and now we've created partnerships with great places like PCC.'

Shop classes are important, Avakian said, because 94 percent of students involved in those types of programs graduate on time.

The 2011 Legislature provided $150,000 for the FIRST robotics program statewide and set aside $2 million in competitive grant money for middle schools and high schools to restart shop classes.

'We've made the first steps this year,' Avakian said.

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