This program in rural Pennsylvania is teaching kids about robotics

(Courtesy Pa. Rural Robotics Initiative)

Timothy Heffernan is the gifted support teacher at Franklin Area High School in Venango County, a rural part of northwest Pennsylvania.

Each year, he lets his students tell him what they’re interested in and designs their learning around that topic. Four years ago, it was robotics.

So he did what any good teacher would do, Heffernan joked to the Capital-Star: He went online and started looking for good ideas to steal. That’s when he found VEX Robotics, a STEM education program that provides robots to schools and gives students a chance to compete with their creations.

Now, in 2019, that class has grown into the five-county Pennsylvania Rural Robotics Initiative, which has placed 180 robots into the hands of hundreds of students.

On Tuesday, Gov. Tom Wolf’s office announced that the initiative will receive an $188,300 Pennsylvania Manufacturing Training-to-Career grant, in part, for a summer workshop.

In its first year, the workshop will serve approximately 20 students from schools across the region who have already participated in the initiative, Heffernan said. It will include robotics and programming lessons, as well as a trip to Carnegie Mellon University.

But it’s also going to “have a strong workforce readiness” component, Heffernan said, with talks from human resources and workforce development professionals.

In fact, the entire initiative is aimed at helping prepare students for what comes after graduation.

‘It totally changes kids’

When Heffernan first started out, he was focused on getting robotics for his students. But as the program grew, he realized he needed community partners, like Komatsu Mining Corp., which operates a manufacturing plant in Franklin.

“We started … hearing over and over and over things that they need, struggles they’re having,” he said.

That includes basics like having a workforce that shows up on time, can effectively communicate, and won’t quit when the job gets tough.

Manufacturers in the region are also competing for computer scientists with Pittsburgh, a growing tech haven less than two hours south. Students may not realize they don’t need a two- or four-year degree to get a good job programming industrial robots for a local manufacturer.

“One of the greatest strengths of our program I’ve seen — this goes way back to when I had one robot in my class — was just getting our kids in front of professionals,” Heffernan said. “The way they see themselves after they work with an engineer from Komatsu, they see themselves differently. They see adults differently. They see their career potential. It just, it totally changes kids.”

Heffernan emphasizes that he can’t see the future — he can’t say for sure what jobs will be available in five or ten years.

But “even if it’s being able to program a VEX robot with a group of five other kids to complete a task,” employers will know they’re quick learners who can be trained, he said.

Big impacts in rural Pa.

This isn’t the first state grant the initiative has received. In February, the Wolf administration awarded the program, via the Cranberry Area School District, a $361,600 PAsmart STEM education grant. The program’s first major funding came from the Texas-based Robotics Education and Competition Foundation, which provided one free robotics kit for every one purchased by the districts.

That initial funding allowed the initiative to grow to 25 school sites in 11 districts. Each school is able to determine how to approach robotics. At Heffernan’s school, his gifted support class has a team, while two other teams of students participate though a club. Other schools have a robotics class like they would for art or music.

Students in the region meet for workshops and competitions. One elementary team qualified for the VEX world championship in April.

The program’s nonprofit support comes from Bridge Builders Community Foundations Inc., a regional grant-making organization.

President and CEO Trenton Moulin said broadening the scope of the program is necessary “if we’re going to make these big impacts, especially in the rural part of Pennsylvania.”

In addition to the workshop, the grant will allow students from Carnegie Mellon and Clarion University to be trained using VEX robots so they in turn can work with younger students as part of the initiative. There will also be advanced teacher trainings.

The grant will also allow the initiative to grow by 26 high schools — triple the number served today.

“You know, we’re really excited about this” grant, Moulin said. “Almost $200,000 in Pittsburgh is one thing. But $200,000 in our area, that can make a real impact.”

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