UPDATED: Texas Workforce Commission gives major boost to youth robotics programs

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AUSTIN, Texas – The Texas Youth Robotics Initiative aims to expand statewide participation in robotics programs for high school students.

Funded by the Texas Workforce Commission, the initiative encourages interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers by expanding student participation in robotics programs in grades nine through 12 by developing new teams for robotics education competitions, while also supporting existing competitive robotics education teams.

To boost the initiative, TWC has awarded the Robotics Education and Competition (REC) Foundation Inc. and the Foundation for Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) in Texas grants totaling $1,395,791.

“This (Texas Youth Robotics Initiative) unique program delivers the one-two punch of strengthening the talent pipeline for our Texas employers while also encouraging young scholars to pursue in-demand disciplines,” said TWC Commissioner Representing Employers Aaron Demerson.

“We are dedicated to providing young students learning opportunities where their passion and enthusiasm for STEM fields can be developed for postsecondary education and rewarding career opportunities with Texas employers.”

TWC Chairman Bryan Daniel agreed. He said: “Partnerships creating work-based learning experiences in STEM disciplines are a key step in making sure our future workforce is ready to meet the challenges of a changing economy. TWC’s support of youth initiatives will ensure Texas remains a leader in innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Daniel said that with a commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion, REC and FIRST actively engages with underserved, underrepresented and vulnerable populations, including students with disabilities.

“Disability inclusion and accessibility are priorities in all efforts to create new teams, and REC and FIRST are using innovative approaches to produce a new competition that is specifically targeted to students with disabilities. All competitions are expected to be accessible, and REC and FIRST place emphasis on continuously improving inclusion in all competitions,” a TWC news release states.

“Robotics competitions make learning STEM fun and exciting,” saidTWC Commissioner Representing Labor Julian Alvarez. “The more students we can inspire to pursue rewarding careers in high demand STEM fields, the better prepared they will be for Texas’ increasingly competitive job market.”

The $695,791 grant awarded to REC will be used to create 125 new high school robotics teams across the state, 25 of which will be comprised of students with disabilities. Additionally, 218 existing teams will receive funds to sustain their robotics programs. Overall, this grant will provide effective STEM education to nearly 2,400 high school students in Texas.

The $700,000 grant awarded to FIRSTwill support participation of 5,700 new and existing students. FIRST specifically targets underserved students and populations with a special focus on students with disabilities, students from low-income or military households, as well as students who are home-schooled or in foster care, on 255 FIRST Tech Challenge teams, 118 FIRST Robotics Competition teams, and 30 “FIRST Access” teams (100 percent students with disabilities), for a total of 500 students with disabilities participating in all teams.

Alvarez said that by addressing barriers for students in these populations, REC and FIRST are ensuring access to programs by all students, so that all young people have the opportunity to become science and technology leaders.

“Robotics competitions bring together the excitement of sports with science and technology. Participation promotes leadership skills in the science, engineering and technology fields, while encouraging self-confidence and communications skills,” a TWC news release states.

FIRST in Texas

Jason Arms, executive director of FIRST In Texas.

FIRST in Texas has a big program in the Rio Grande Valley under the auspices of FIRST RGV. FIRST RGV used to be run by Jason Arms. He is now executive director of FIRST in Texas.

“We are so grateful that the Texas Workforce Commission has identified FIRST in Texas as a community partner in building a future workforce,” Arms said.

Arms pointed out that this is the fifth year that FIRST in Texas has received such funding from TWC. He said it has allowed thousands of kids and hundreds of school districts that would not have been able to engage in a FIRST program to do so.

“It is important for more leaders in government and industry to step up and support programs such as FIRST around Texas and help us close the gap in building a strong and effective workforce for years to come,” Arms said.

Arms said FIRST stands for: For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.

“It is a global initiative founded by Dean Kamen, the well-known inventor. The mission of FIRST is to engage students in a very engaging, inspirational and inclusive set of programs for PK-thru-12 students,” Arms told the Rio Grande Guardian.

Arms said the $700,000 will help support the participation of more than 5,700 current and future students in a FIRSTprogram all across Texas.

“FIRST is more than a robotics competition. It is an opportunity for students to learn and grow mentally and emotionally through creative problem solving, conflict resolution, and early networking,” a FIRST in Texas news release states.

“Many FIRST students find scholarships, internships, and jobs because of their experience on a robotics team and the connections they built while a part of the program.”

Arms said his non-profit works constantly with partners around the state to increase access to FIRST programs for underserved students and communities that may not have access to the STEM education.

He noted that the events of the past year, including the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic recession, have put additional barriers in the way of success for many students. “FIRST in Texas is dedicated to removing as many of these barriers as possible,” Arms said.

Arms said more than 400 Texas FIRST teams will be eligible to receive assistance from the TWC grant, in the form of money and equipment. For a team to qualify to receive the assistance, Arms said, they must fill out an application form.

“This funding specifically encourages students with special needs, students from underserved or underrepresented communities as a priority to receive the funding,” he explained.

In addition purchasing new equipment, the funds can be used to cover costs associated with participating in FIRST programs such as FIRST Tech Challenge and FIRST Robotics Competition programs, Arms explained.

“Both programs allow students in high school to design, build and program a robot that can then be judged for specific awards and be included in a robotics competition at the local, state and national level,” Arms said.

Arms said FIRST is always looking for mentors and volunteers. “We invite you to support the mission of FIRST by volunteering at a local event, mentoring a team or getting involved financially. Together we are FIRST.”

Robotics Education & Competition Foundation

The Greenville, Texas based Robotics Education & Competition (REC) Foundation is a global, nonprofit and educational organization that engages more than one million elementary, middle, high school and college-aged youth with unique opportunities to participate affordable and evidence-based robotics programs and competitions using the VEX Robotics platform.

The REC Foundation seeks to inspire and prepare the next generation of innovators, problem-solvers, and engineers. Through the creative process of designing, building, and programming robots for competition students gain a wealth of technical knowledge and develop communication and teamwork skills that will serve them well throughout their lives.

“Through a strong focus on teamwork, hands-on learning and encouraging mentorships, the REC Foundation helps educators, school districts, and communities in Texas help close the gap between STEM learning opportunities and workforce development. Along with creating 125 new high school robotics teams that include 2,400 students across the state, the REC Foundation has partnered with the Texas School for the Deaf (TSD) and collaborates with Special Olympics of Texas (SOTX) to increase STEM education opportunities to students with disabilities,” said Andy Schaafs, director of Regional Operations at the REC Foundation.

“The Texas School of Deaf will host a new high school level competition in Austin for all deaf and hard of hearing teams, 25 new from Texas and up to 40 existing, from across the nation. The funding will also support existing teams through a Texas State Championship that will be open to any high school VRC team, including teams comprised of students with disabilities, in the state of Texas.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above news story shows the Mighty RoboRangers robotics team from Mission, Texas, competing in the FIRST World Championships in Houston, Texas.

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