Gail Vawter and her husband always wanted their children to learn how to run a business, so they were on board when their kids and a friend thought of an idea back in high school: LEGO robotics camp. It was something that son Michael always wanted to go to—he’s a world-champion robot builder—but could never find. When they founded the Robot Academy near Columbus in 2006, it was the first and only of its kind in the country. “Techies need to find other kids who think the way that they do,” says Vawter, the academy’s director of operations. “It’s easy to find kids who like sports but harder to find future engineers. That’s what we provide.” The camps, which run programs for ages 4 to 16, are actually about kids being off screens and in teams.
Instead of step-by-step instructions—“We assume kids can do that at home,” explains Vawter—campers use creative problem-solving to build something totally original. In one exercise, they’re tasked with inventing an “attachment” so a robot can complete an everyday chore like feeding the dog or, well, picking up LEGOs. While they work on critical thinking and time management, there’s something bigger at play: They’re gaining confidence. “There’s a crisis because not a lot of kids are going into the STEM fields,” says Vawter, who studied computer science and economics at Denison, earned an MBA, and has worked as a tech exec for Fortune 500 companies. “And we worry that it’s because they feel they can’t do it.”
There may be a shortage of STEM students in America, but Vawter’s encouraged by the increasing number of girls in the camps, especially over the last five years. She sees more female students not only winning STEM competitions but earning full rides to colleges in STEM majors.
The business continues to be a family affair. She splits her time between running an IT consulting company, Tech Solutions Now, which she started with her husband 20 years ago, and overseeing the day-to-day operations of the academy. Michael, Denison Class of 2014, is the director of education at Robot Academy and created the original video tutorials used for camp and online instruction; they are currently working together to create a new version for teachers and entrepreneurs. “In lieu of franchising,” says Vawter, “this is a way for our programs to reach and teach kids nationwide and, eventually, worldwide.”