With a Ph.D. in Workforce Education, Dr. Shelly Gruenig has long had an interest in helping others build successful, gratifying careers. However, it wasn’t until homeschooling her son brought her into contact with the world of middle and high school competitive robotics that she fully kindled her passion for working with young people.
The founder and owner of Be Greater than Average, LLC, which holds robotics camps and assists students and parents in establishing and nurturing competitive robotics teams, Gruenig couldn’t have imagined that homeschooling her own children would lead her into the world of competitive robotics, help her establish her own company, and allow her to become an important educational contributor to the SOLIDWORKS community.
“My background is in career counseling, but I literally grew up in my Daddy’s garage,” Gruenig explains. “I loved power tools, and making and repairing things, like fixing my bike, building the background for my sixth-grade science fair project, or running the phone line extension required to put a telephone in my room. Although I studied career development in depth, I gained an understanding of the value of hands-on learning from working with my Dad. I was looking for something to get hands-on science experience for my son, whom I homeschooled, when I discovered BEST Robotics.”
Boosting Engineering, Science, and Technology (BEST) Robotics is a national six-week robotics competition that is held each fall in the United States and is designed to help middle school and high school student participants develop interests, skills, and expertise related to building competitive robots that can lead to careers in engineering and technology. Gruenig founded the community-based Rio Rancho Robo Runners, or R4 Robotics, in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, just outside of Albuquerque, in 2005. Although the team failed to place in its first couple competitions, it has grown and expanded its focus—now competing in both BEST and VEX robotics competitions—and has become more successful: currently ranked among the top four BEST Robotics teams in the country.
The Rise of the Rio Rancho Robo Runners
For students age 10 and older, R4 Robotics competed in its first robotics competition in 2005 with four team members, one of which was Gruenig’s son. That original team scored one point during its first year, and zero points during its second year of competition, before qualifying for its area’s regional competition in its third year. Since then, R4 Robotics has won the New Mexico state championship 10 times and took first place in the BEST Robotics Texas Regional in 2014 and 2018. Gruenig credits the team’s improvement in building competitive robots, which are constructed in the Gruenig garage, to the team’s growing experience and expertise, as well as to the implemention of SOLIDWORKS® design tools.
“What really helped us was access to SOLIDWORKS design software and members of the SOLIDWORKS user community,” Gruenig recounts. “SOLIDWORKS is a great tool and has an active user community. Along about year five, we had two students, Caleb Holets and Dereck Sanchez, who were passionate about using SOLIDWORKS and really took off with it. Eventually, we were able to get Dereck a SOLIDWORKS license, and he started jamming with SOLIDWORKS year round to formalize our robot development process, which now consists of designing and testing the robot in SOLIDWORKS, and then building it.
“While Dereck continued to help out as our student trainer for SOLIDWORKS, we also got help from different SOLIDWORKS professionals, including members of the local SOLIDWORKS user group and Mike Perlock at reseller MCAD Technologies [merged with Computer Aided Technology (CATI) in 2015],” Gruenig continues. “These people are truly amazing and their offers of help have greatly contributed to enabling the team to grow and succeed.”
Since that initial R4 Robotics team was formed more than a decade ago with four members, the team has grown every year and now averages between 30 and 40 members each year. The makeup of the team has also changed over the years with both boy and girl members, including Gruenig’s two daughters. “When we started our team, we had no idea that it would take off like it has,” Gruenig recalls. “The little seed that we planted has grown to touch the lives of literally hundreds of kids in a positive way.
“At some point, after my husband and I had volunteered thousands of hours and developed an entire curriculum, my oldest daughter suggested that we treat the effort as a business. That’s when we decided to branch out from the R4 team to consult with other parents and students on how to go about creating a community-based competitive robotics team, using our curriculum.” Those efforts include the establishment of summer camps, where campers get an introduction to using SOLIDWORKS, as well as afterschool programs, an online presence, and most recently the launch of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) Southwest Podcast. Gruenig’s success coaching the R4 team has not gone unnoticed, as she recently received one of the 2019 Excellence in STEM Awards—known as the STEMYS—as Advisor/Coach of the Year from the Air Force Research Laboratory New Mexico Tech Engagement Office.
Be Greater than Average and the Life Launch Academy
What began as the community-based R4 Robotics team has evolved into Gruenig’s company: Be Greater Than Average, LLC and its Life Launch Academy. The company conducts educational programs including robotics engineering, which teaches students about the technology of building robots, with an emphasis on critical project management skills, such as working in a collaborative team environment where ideas and experiments are recorded in a project manual. Students also learn about innovation and the evolution of the engineering design process, as well as developing an understanding of the science behind their robot.
Serving more than 1,000 students, ranging from beginner to advanced, over the past six years, Be Greater Than Average programs stand out because of their emphasis on peer-learning, with highly-trained team leaders working with student groups rather than adults. Gruenig says that this “dynamic learning environment allows for everyone to take part and to build on their personal areas of strength, and to discover their own competitive advantage, something that many people struggle their entire lives to find.” In addition to robotics engineering, company programs include stop-motion animation, website design, media arts, and software training, including SOLIDWORKS.
The company’s Life Launch Academy is designed to help students, and their parents, as students prepare to leave the nest and launch their lives. Through classes that help students gain confidence, access resources, and develop plans, the Life Launch Academy helps students build a blueprint for career success.
“I firmly believe in multi-level learning because I’ve seen how kids can teach other kids about robotics, engineering, and SOLIDWORKS software,” Gruenig says. “Dereck Sanchez, one of our original SOLIDWORKS gurus, just graduated from high school and is now working with 3D printers. He’s just one example of how getting young people involved in building robots with SOLIDWORKS can help them launch successful lives and contribute to society in positive, meaningful ways.”