Esko school district expands career and technical education programs

Since 2013, the school district has been working to expand its engineering, robotics and woodshop resources.

Esko juniors Jacob Majerle and Ben Holt watch as a machine works to cut a hole into a metal block. They pre-programmed the dimensions of the hole using the attached computer system. (Izabel Johnson/

Walking into the career and technical education classrooms at Esko high school is nothing like what one might expect.

Robots, computers, saws, large machines and other tools fill the space, while students work feverishly on their projects.

What started as two classrooms with low-grade machines scattered here and there has now turned into an expansive space, fully stocked with the latest technology.

Esko teacher Justin Scheider has been working since 2013 to grow the school's career and technical education programming, which includes an award-winning robotics program, as well as classes specializing in mechanical engineering and woodshop skills.

Now, seven years later, Scheider has multiple classrooms filled with cutting-edge technology and machines, as well as enthusiastic students.


“We’ve been very lucky, very successful,” he said.

Esko students Ben Holt (left) and Jacob Majerle listen as Justin Scheider discusses robots made by students in Esko's robotics program in past years. (Izabel Johnson /


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State funding aides in growth

In 2019, Esko was one of nine local schools chosen to receive funds from a $1.5 million state grant geared towards expanding CTE programs in Minnesota schools. Of the $1.5 million, Esko received $146,376, according to grant manager Jim Schwarzbauer.

To date, the district has invested almost all of the money in new resources for multiple classes and programs, including welding equipment, a vinyl cutter, drones and more.

Schwarzbauer said the majority of Esko CTE grant funds have been allocated toward Scheider's work at the school.


Esko senior Sarah Steuber places a foam cube onto one of the robots made by students in Esko's robotics program. The robot is trained to place the cube on a shelf. (Izabel Johnson /

In addition to offering five different courses for students, Scheider and his students also put many of these new tools to use in Esko’s robotics program, which offers students in grades 9-12 a chance to build robots and compete nationally.

The robotics season runs throughout the school, with an average of 30 students, 15 mentors, one coach and one assistant coach involved annually.

More than a school program

Some students involved in robotics shared that the program and Scheider’s classrooms have become less of a school activity and more like a second home.

They say coming together as a group and using a variety of knowledge to build one robot is an educational experience unlike any other.

Elliot Perlinger (left) and Lexxy Napper look at designs made by Perlinger for Esko's robotics program. They are currently working to design a logo for display on the new robotics trailer. (Izabel Johnson /


“We have a lot of … different thinkers, so it’s easy to bounce stuff off each other and figure things out,” Esko junior Kaiden Moe said. “You get to learn a lot more things.”

Moe explained that he will typically use school lunch and study hall time to come to the robotics workshop, as well as after-school hours.

According to the students, it is typical for robotics participants to spend upwards of 200 hours working on a robot throughout the school year, but they say it never feels like a chore or something that they don’t want to do.

“It’s learning, but in a fun way,” Esko junior Elliot Perlinger said. “It’s a lot of team building.”

Perlinger is mainly interested in graphic design and has been a part of Esko’s robotics team for three years, initially joining on the advice of a friend.

Esko juniors Jacob Majerle and Ben Holt are both also in their third year of robotics, opting into the program together after being in some of Scheider’s classes.

“I like working with my hands, building things from start to finish,” Holt said. “You’re thrown all this knowledge and sometimes it can be kind of hard to break it down … but once you get past that, it’s amazing.”

This sentiment was echoed by Esko senior Lexxy Napper, who just joined the robotics program this season. She said she spent the majority of the year learning as much as possible and wishing she would’ve joined sooner.


Finding a second home in robotics is especially true for Esko senior Sarah Steuber, who has been a part of the program since her freshman year.

Steuber said the robotics program has far exceeded her expectations, with new knowledge being shared almost constantly.

A feeling unlike any other

While the students were unable to physically partake in competitions this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they say nothing can compare to the feeling of seeing one’s robot compete.

“Watching something that you put over 200 hours into building … and seeing it out there … it’s hard to explain,” Holt said.

Kaiden Moe works on a computer in one of the rooms designated for Esko's robotics program. Moe is in his second year of participation in robotics. (Izabel Johnson /

In traditional years, the students have competed at state, national and international levels — taking home numerous victories.

“(It’s) just working on no sleep, energy drinks and concession food, but it’s just so much fun,” Majerle said of competition season.


Each annual competition typically presents a theme for the robots to follow, such as tossing balls into a hoop. The students then travel with their robots to show them off in front of judges.

This year, the only competitions offered were virtual, so the Esko students opted not to participate. Instead, they used the year to perform maintenance on some of the projects and continue growing their knowledge.

Even though they miss competing, the students say this season of robotics has still been one for the books.

Esko students of the SubZero Robotics team stand with their robot April 24 at the world championship in Detroit. Submitted photo
Esko students of the SubZero Robotics team stand with their robot April 24 at the world championship in Detroit. (Submitted photo)

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