State sets aside $3M to help school robotics teams grow

News Photo by Julie Goldberg High school robotics teams compete in a For Inspiration and Recognition of Science Technology (FIRST) district competition at Alpena High School in April 2018.

ALPENA – The state recently set aside more than $3 million in state grants to schools across Michigan to advance robotics programs.

There are $3 million in grants available for public schools and $300,000 in grants available for non-public schools for robotics programs. The grants will be available through the Michigan Department of Education and are part of the state’s investment in science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM). Schools can apply for a portion of that $3 million to launch new robotics teams or grow existing ones until local fundraising helps make the teams mostly self-sustaining.

The funds will assist schools in competing at the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology Robotics (FIRST) World Championships in Detroit in April.

Local school districts can use grant money to participate in the VEX robotics program and its Robotics Education and Competition. Some local school districts have just started robotics programs in the past few years, so those programs will continue to grow and the number of students in the programs will also grow.

Alpena High School teacher and robotics mentor Melissa Doubek said Alpena is hoping to expand its robotics program and all the robotics teams within Alpena Public Schools will benefit from that.

“This will help us have our kids that are participating in junior high and elementary go to other tournaments, if they want to,” Doubek said. “They could go to other towns and compete against other towns and other groups of kids, so that will help us out there.”

Alpena High has two robotics teams that compete in the spring, while Thunder Bay Junior High School has one robotics team that competes. All the elementary schools have their own robotics teams that compete in competitions throughout the fall.

Alcona Community Schools Superintendent Dan O’Connor said Alcona will apply for the traditional grants for elementary, middle and high school teams to get a little bit of the $3 million, with the hope of adding more teams so all students can participate.

“We hope to also add a seventh-grade team and utilize the additional grant money for this purpose,” O’Connor said. “The FIRST program has made a positive impact for kids and we hope to continue to participate across all grade levels in the district.”

O’Connor said Alcona has had a robotics program for four years and, along with adding a seventh-grade team, he hopes the district can expand its eighth-grade robotics program.

“Research shows that robotics helps students excel in school overall,” O’Connor said. “It’s a different way to approach learning. Students can also expand career options, which is a great thing.”

Hillman Community Schools and Atlanta Community Schools Superintendent Carl Seiter said his understanding of the additional $3 million is that it will be set aside to help increase the number of robotics programs in the state.

Both Hillman and Atlanta’s robotics programs started last year and Seiter said the grant dollars the schools received helped start the programs. Seiter said the grants are an initial $9,000 and gradually reduce until the districts are fully funding their programs.

Both Hillman and Atlanta started robotics programs last year to engage students into content areas like math and science.

“The outstanding part of that is, when challenging concepts are communicated in a manner where students can readily apply them, in a hands-on fashion, the kids just love it and learn a great deal,” Seiter said.

The $3 million will give students the opportunity to collaborate with employers, community members, and other schools. Seiter said that, not only are students applying challenging subjects into robotics, but they are also working together to problem-solve.

“It’s a recipe for success,” he said. “Employers are looking to hire these qualities. I am excited that our kids come out of the program with employable skills.”

Onaway Area Community Schools teacher and robotics mentor Lewis Robinson said Onaway has had a robotics program for four years and has seen the number of students grow in that time.

There’s an entry fee for competitions throughout the robotics season, so the grants help the teams the first couple of years until they can have a robotics program from their own fundraising efforts.

“We reach out to sponsors and do fundraising events to help with the expenses,” he said.

Robinson said robotics helps students step out of their comfort zone and learn new things.

“Robotics is great for school and kids,” Robinson said. “It’s a hands-on activity and a phenomenal program.”

Robinson said three students have been in robotics throughout their entire time in high school and have the opportunity to meet students from other teams when at competitions. He said a couple of students have received college scholarships because of the robotics program.

“They learn skills for trades and learn things that they can apply in the classroom,” Robinson said.

Posen Consolidated Schools robotics mentor Brian Konieczny said the state funding will help continue letting teams grow. Posen has had a robotics team for four years and has seen the state funding help its team grow from seven students its first year to 14 students this year.

Konieczny said Gov. Rick Snyder has helped with the implementation of state aid for robotics and hopes the next governor can continue providing state aid for robotics. Michiganders will chose a new governor this fall.

“Robotics helps get students out of their shells,” Konieczny said. “Students that weren’t very popular are popular now because of robotics.”

With the help of state funding, Konieczny hopes the Posen robotics program can grow to let elementary and middle school students participate in robotics. He said mentors are needed so the robotics program can continue to grow.

“We need someone to help volunteer and carry a team, but it takes up most of your time,” he said. “Even though there’s not an elementary team, the young kids are interested in what the older kids are doing.”

Julie Goldberg can be reached at jgoldberg@thealpenanews.com or 989-358-5688.