Inquirer: In Philly schools, a robotics reboot

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“Our experience at Central is the richest when we have a whole community of robotics teams around us to work with,” said Michael Johnson, a science teacher and the head coach of what has grown into the largest student group at Central, with 100 participants. “We want to open up new opportunities elsewhere. We’re talking about an ecosystem.”

Read Kristen Graham’s article in this morning’s Inquirer!

Press Release: Central Robotics Coalition Restarts Philadelphia Teams

November 14, 2016

The RoboLancers, Central High School’s award-winning robotics team, is excited to announce the launch of a new initiative to provide funding and mentors to restart robotics teams in schools throughout the city.

The Central Robotics Coalition’s mission is to connect businesses, universities, and foundations with Philadelphia public high school robotics teams, building an ecosystem of mentorship and support for the next generation of STEM and business leaders in our city.

The Coalition is beginning work immediately to provide money, mentors, and training to restart FIRST Tech Challenge robotics teams at schools where teams have gone dormant due to lack of funds. In its first year, the Coalition has the capacity to restart six teams. The teams at Edison High School, Frankford High School, Philadelphia High School for Girls, Lincoln High School, Parkway Center City High School, and The Workshop School have signed on for Coalition support.

In the last two years, at least 13 Philadelphia FIRST Tech Challenge teams have ceased activity. Many of these teams, including the team at Edison High School, were founded in 2011 with funding from the federal GEAR UP grant administered by the School District of Philadelphia. After competing successfully for four years, that funding was abruptly cut, forcing the teams to shut down.

“Our Central Robotics Coalition grant is a blessing,” said Edison Coach Barbara Bess-Pashak. “It will allow our kids to get back to the competition where they belong.”

The Coalition is initially funded through a transformative three-year challenge grant from the Neubauer Family Foundation, which promises $25,000 this year and up to $50,000 in matching funds for the second and third years.

The Coalition is now seeking additional pledges of support for the coming years to double the number of teams served, including the creation of new teams. This will allow the Coalition to take full advantage of the matching funds offered by the Neubauer Family Foundation, and to diversify and secure the funding stream to ensure program stability.

In addition to funding, the Coalition will help pair teams with adult mentors who can assist the students with designing, building, and programming their robots. These mentors will also help students learn the fundraising and public speaking skills that are crucial for a team’s stability and success and which will prepare students for careers in a wide array of fields.

To identify mentors, the Coalition seeks to develop partnerships with universities and businesses that could recruit students or employees to devote two to four hours a week to mentoring students. Mentors in programming, development, communications, and mechanical design and building are all in high demand.

The Coalition is modeled after the FLL In the City grant program of the University of Pennsylvania, which provides funding, mentorship, and team support to elementary and middle school FIRST LEGO League teams in Philadelphia, Camden, and Chester public schools. The Penn FIRST LEGO League program is coordinated by former RoboLancers coach Daniel Miller-Uueda, who is now the Associate Director of Education and Outreach at the University of Pennsylvania’s GRASP Lab.

“We’re glad to have a partner organization stepping in to support high school robotics in Philadelphia,” said Miller-Uueda. “It’s important that our FIRST LEGO League students in Philly have the opportunity to continue in robotics after they graduate eighth grade and age out of our program.”

“For years, the RoboLancers have been known for their outreach efforts, sending Central students and microgrants around the city to support other teams,” said Sabrina Dormer, a Central senior and the team’s president. “Now the Coalition will magnify those efforts by bringing more money, mentors, and support than we could have provided alone.”

Thomas Davidenko helped shape the Coalition as it was first proposed in April, shortly before graduating from Central and the RoboLancers. He now studies International Business at Temple University and has been hired by the Coalition to coach current students through the realization and administration of the Coalition program.

“My years on the RoboLancers taught me the value of what can be gained by working together, and inspired me to pursue that idea on a grand scale,” said Davidenko. “The Coalition will bring ever more students into robotics programs where collaboration and innovation go hand in hand.”

The larger goal of the Coalition is to support an ecosystem of schools, foundations, and businesses to provide a pathway for Philadelphia’s public school children to explore, study, and find employment in STEM fields here in our city.

“By forging ties between high schools, colleges, and industry, Philadelphia students will see a clear path of opportunity and inspiration leading them to become our city’s next generation of engineers and innovators,” said RoboLancers head coach Michael Johnson. “We are excited at the opportunity the Neubauer Family Foundation is providing us and look forward to expanding this program to meet the needs of students in schools across Philadelphia.”