Lawrence robotics studio adds classes for elementary students, recruits students of all ages for competitions | News, Sports, Jobs

photo by: Jen Nigro/Level Up Robotics

Wyatt Williamson practices driving the team robot and picking up a tri-ball on Aug. 23, 2023, at Level Up Robots, 1520 Wakarusa Drive.

A Lawrence robotics studio teaching kids how to program, build and operate robots has expanded its offerings for elementary-aged students and is also forming teams for competition.

The studio, Level Up Robots, 1520 Wakarusa Drive, opened in September of 2022, and has not only been keeping kids entertained with weekly classes but has also introduced them to a field of science that will be vital to the job market in coming decades, said Jen Nigro, part owner and coach. Classes have primarily involved middle and high school students, but the studio is now offering more classes for elementary students.

“Connecting kids with computer programming, with the mechanical side of robotics, all of it really helps them build skills that are going to be necessary in the job market,” Nigro said.

Other owners and coaches include Tom Walton, a software developer, and Jeannie Merritt, a high school teacher.

While kids in the classes may not be thinking about future jobs, the lessons they are learning about teamwork and communication can be used immediately, Nigro said.

photo by: Jen Nigro/Level Up Robotics

Coach Tom Walton, bottom left, works with Daniel Dao, center, and Lawrence Dao, right, on programming while Charlotte Johnson, center, and Callum Gill, top, work on the mechanical components of their robots on Aug. 23, 2023, at Level Up Robots, 1520 Wakarusa Drive.

“It really helps them see how important it is to work together because the world is becoming this very collaborative environment with a need to communicate in person, online and in writing,” Nigro said.

The new elementary classes will use First Lego League’s robotics platform, so many of the construction methods may already be familiar to the kids, Nigro said. First Lego League is a self-described hands-on approach to learning science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, topics.

If enough kids show interest in the elementary classes and in competing, the studio may enter into elementary-age competitions, Nigro said.

Level Up Robots teams of fifth graders through eighth graders, in the first year after the studio’s opening, made it to the semifinals in Vex Robotics competitions against dozens of high-school age teams in both Wichita and Topeka.

Vex Robotics creates robotics construction platforms for kids in pre-K all the way up to the university level, according to its website. It has competitions for every age level all over the world.

Kids enrolled with the studio attend classes twice a week, Nigro said. The curriculum introduces students to a topic, then they get to work.

photo by: Jen Nigro/Level Up Robotics

(left to right) Wyatt Williamson, Charlotte Johnson, Callum Gill, Daniel Dao and Lawrence Dao listen as Level Up coach Tom Walton explains this year’s Vex Robotics competition game on Aug. 23, 2023, at Level Up Robots, 1520 Wakarusa Drive.

“They’ll learn a concept, and then they’ll actually get hands-on, whether that’s with doing some programming on the computer or doing mechanical building on the robot,” Nigro said.

The classes become more complex and involved as competitions draw near. Students pivot from general education to focusing on a specific robot construction and tasks that the robots will perform, Nigro said.

The studio is recruiting middle and high school students now to compete in the 2023-2024 Vex Robotics season. It is being careful not to pull students away from the high school programs, but the small and medium-size robots that Level Up Robots builds are a good starting point for inexperienced kids.

“We have had a couple of high school students come to us who needed a little bit of knowledge. They wanted a little bit more of a foundation and wanted to get a little more comfortable before they moved on to the big robots in high school,” Nigro said.

photo by: Jen Nigro/Level Up Robotics

Ashley Sponholtz tests her robot program on the practice fieldon Aug. 23, 2023, at Level Up Robots, 1520 Wakarusa Drive.

One of the studio’s coaches, Merritt, teaches at Lawrence High School and coaches the school’s team where they build larger robots weighing over 100 pounds in addition to building smaller robots.

“It’s a great time for students to get in, because it’ll give us time to get them through that foundational curriculum, but also get them working hands-on with the competition robots. Our hope is to have two teams this year,” Nigro said.

With two teams, the studio hopes that they would be able to hold more one-on-one scrimmages locally to prepare for area competitions.

Classes at Level Up Robots start at $129 a month for elementary students and $199 a month for older kids, which includes two classes per week and materials. Competitions may cost additional money, Nigro said.

For families who may not be sure about investing that much money right away, parents can contact the studio to schedule a free introductory class so kids can try it out before committing, Nigro said. Those interested in an introductory class or joining a team can contact the studio via its website at or by calling 785-330-5099.

“It’s a fun, engaging, hands-on environment that gives kids exposure to robotics, programming technology, and all the other skills that they’re working so hard to develop at these ages. There’s no need to have robotics experience or knowledge coming in. We teach them everything they need to know,” Nigro said.

Seventh-grader Callum Gill said he has been working with Level Up Robots for about a year. He said watching his older brother build robots got him interested in doing it himself, and the studio is “where I get to be creative, meet new people and build robots.”

Currently, Callum is working on an “X bot” that is capable of moving on an X and Y axis and climbing a pole, he said. The robot will also be able to pick up a “tri-ball.” which is a triangle shaped ball, and put it in a net. He plans to enter the robot in competitions, which he said are fun because they have “different people that I don’t know what their skill sets are. So you get more of a challenge and you have to think outside of the box.”

Overall, Callum said he is glad that he started working with robots and he recommends other kids give it a try.

“Be ready for a lot of teamwork, and be ready to have a lot of fun, and lots of laughs,” he said.

photo by: Jen Nigro/Level Up Robotics

Mateo Nieto tests his robot program on the practice field on Aug. 23, 2023, at Level Up Robots, 1520 Wakarusa Drive.

photo by: Jen Nigro/Level Up Robotics

Callum Gill adds mechanical components to the team roboton Aug. 23, 2023, at Level Up Robots, 1520 Wakarusa Drive.