This year, rural students will have more opportunities to learn critical thinking, problem solving, and technical skills in a fun atmosphere by engaging in competitive robotics thanks in part to a chaotic three months of advocacy from the Chamber and Chamber member Quarkmine LLC.
For a number of years, the state of Michigan invested $2.5 million annually for grants to schools to use in competitive robotics. These dollars could be used for one platform only – a competitive robotics program called FIRST Robotics. Michigan schools districts, including a few in northern Michigan, built FIRST programs and teams that became highly competitive at the state and national level.
The challenge is that many school districts struggle to compete due to the limited resources in their communities. Many have a hard time affording the program, finding community experts to mentor teams, or sustain the program with equipment and travel costs to truly compete with other resource rich schools from across the state.
In the time since FIRST Robotics was inserted into the budget, a number of other competitive robotics platforms entered the market. Some, like VEX Robotics put on by the Robotics Education & Competition (REC) Foundation, offered opportunities for multiple competitions per year at smaller price points and reusable robot kits.
Philip Leete, the principal and co-owner of Quarkmine LLC, a Traverse City-based business that specialized in STEM programs and events for students at all grade levels, was quick to bring this to the Chamber’s attention. Given his background in working with competitive robotics events, he knew there was an unmet need in school districts around northern Michigan for competitive STEM programing. “Michigan schools are as different as their regions and communities are. To think that one type of competitive robotics program would be a good fit for every school never made sense to me,” he said.
This also fit well within the Chamber’s mantra of “One Size Does Not Fit All” which challenges us to advocate for ways to “right size” programs to scale to the needs of rural areas.
With a vision of seeing STEM and competitive robotics programs in all school districts, at all grade levels, the Chamber, Quarkmine partners Leete and John Gilligan – along with the backing of Grand Traverse area manufacturers – brought the idea to the attention of local state legislators Sen. Wayne Schmidt and Rep. Larry Inman, who opened the door to their colleagues who are in charge of producing the state budget.
In March, we pitched the idea of opening up the robotics grant language to include other robotics platforms to State House K-12 budget chair Tim Kelly, Senate K-12 budget chair Geoff Hansen, and Senate Appropriations chair Dave Hildenbrand. All three were very receptive to the idea, but we knew that we were coming to them with this request somewhat late in the process which could make the hesitant to support this change.
Another issue was going to be getting Governor Rick Snyder on board. Gov. Snyder has been a big proponent of competitive robotics, and we have him to thank for the increased interest and investment in robotics experiences across the state. The Governor was a firm believer in the FIRST Robotics program and was not likely to easily support competition for it at this time.
After some wrangling, legislators and the Governor reached a compromise. The budget language would be opened up to include other VEX robotics platforms, but, in doing so the leaders also agreed to increase the robotics pie another half million dollars to an even $3 million!
As someone who has personally seen and been a part of STEM growth in the region’s schools, Leete is ecstatic. “Right now, two major programs in Michigan are REC VEX Robotics and FIRST Robotics. Both programs have opportunities for students at all grade levels. Now, a school could choose either one and receive a grant from the state. This is a big deal for northern Michigan!”
More students in rural areas will participate in competitive robotics programs thanks to the persistent, chaotic work of some individuals who are dedicated to making small, but transformational changes to how the state invests in competitive robotics and STEM education. Most importantly for this year, it will allow more of our future talent pool in northern Michigan to experience the thrill of competitive robotics and develop a lifelong interest and enthusiasm in the STEM skills that will drive our economy forward, one robot at a time.