Robotics students remember their St. Catharines mentor

The metal robot glides across the fenced-in area, picking up blue rings and sliding them onto posts.

Nick Lawrence steers the machine by remote control as Mike Viney gives advice under the watchful eye of an auditorium of people.

As their robot scoots around the play area, it sports a sign that says In Memory of Stephen Rourke.

Thoughout the year, the senior students from Westlane Secondary School in Niagara Falls have honoured their St. Catharines mentor who died in May at age 50.

"If it wasn't for his passion for the program, I wouldn't be the person I am today," said Lawrence, 17, during a break at the Southern Ontario VEX Robotics Championship at Governor Simcoe Secondary School Saturday.

"It's changed me as a person and I've grown up a lot. He's the reason I'm here."

Lawrence, like many students competing in robotics competitions, had an interest in engineering but didn't have an outlet until he discovered his school's team.

There weren't any teams in Niagara until Rourke, a director of engineering at General Motors, became interested in robotics education.

He gave teacher Greg Phillips of Governor Simcoe School a call in 2003 about starting up a team.

"He said, 'We're going to win a world championship' and I thought, I didn't know how we're going to do that. Every year, we improved and improved," Phillips said. "He's very missed by me. I think about him every day."

The Governor Simcoe team went on to win numerous championships, including the worlds in 2008.

Karthik Kanagasabapathy, manager of Innovations First International that ran the Saturday competition, said Rourke thought having only one school with a team wasn't enough.

So Rourke spread the program to more high schools, like Westlane.

"He had a passion for creating this sort of thing for them," said Rourke's daughter Breanne. "He was very addicted to it. He ate, lived and breathed robotics." Kanagasabapathy said because of him, every high school in the District School Board of Niagara now has a robotics kit and the board is a model across North America for getting robotics education into schools.

Governor Simcoe has helped start up 30 teams and is aiding new teams in Mexico and London, Ont.

"Everything we've got we owe to Steve and his vision of the future," said Ted Clark, the Westlane manufacturing technology teacher and team leader. "He's the grandfather of robotics in this area."

Clark said Rourke thought there weren't enough young people turning their focus to science and technology.

Stephanie Thompson, a lead technical engineer and mentor from GM, said Rourke wanted to build up technology programs in the city so kids who live here would want to stay.

"He saw what technology was and where he wanted it to go."

Robotics gave bright students who aren't necessarily into sports a chance to be in a competitive atmosphere, she said. They also learn social skills, get judged and interact with people.

"It's a complement to everything they learn in the classroom. They can take it out and push themselves."

Clark said students in robotics get involved with making their own websites, promotional materials, raise money for sponsorships and mentor younger students. Graduates tend to go on to programs in university they wouldn't have necessarily have thought of before.

"Because of him, I know I want to be an engineer when I grow up," said Westlane student Mike Viney.

Viney said he came into high school not sure what he wanted to do, but after the first week of robotics he fell in love with it.

"His vision was just an inspiration to all of us."