PA Rural Robotics Initiative Continues to Grow, Offering Increased Opportunities for Local Students
The initiative, which originally grew out of an effort to bring a robotics program to the Franklin Area School District, has taken on a life of its own, according to coordinator Tim Heffernan.
“There is so much good stuff happening,” Heffernan told exploreClarion.com.
“We have a spreadsheet of schools that is growing by the day.”
Meeting with Governor Tom Wolf to showcase their skills in coding, robotics, and drone technology earlier this month was a big moment for many of the students, as well as the growing program, still there has been a lot more going on.
The program began in 2018 with eleven member districts, along with Intermediate Unit 6 and the Venango Technology Center.
“We’ve doubled the size of our high school groups just in the last two weeks. We were able to do that through a grant opportunity we got through the Department of Community and Economic Development,” Heffernan said.
According to Heffernan, the grant is going to allow the program to bring on a total of 30 more high schools.
“We’re going to be four times our original size by spring, which is pretty exciting,” he noted.
Along with the original districts, which include Clarion-Limestone Area School District; Keystone School District; North Clarion County School District; Redbank Valley School District; Cranberry Area School District; Franklin Area School District; Oil City Area School District; Valley Grove School District; Forest Area School District; Brookville Area School District; and DuBois Area School District, the initiative has moved into Intermediate Unit 5, bringing on seven new districts – one of which has four high schools.
They’ve also added Clarion Area School District and Titusville Area School District, from IU6, as well as Venango Catholic High School, and have extended invitations to all of the other schools from IU6.
“There are only four schools left in our IU that haven’t jumped in yet,” Heffernan said.
Heffernan noted that while he presents the opportunity to each school, he doesn’t push for members, because the program really speaks for itself.
“All of the schools that join in, whether they dive full in or just dip their toe in it, as soon as they do an event or two and see how passionate the kids are, they’re like ‘okay, we’re in.'”
Each of the schools also decides individually how they want to manage the program within their own school, with some starting programs as early as elementary schools and some focusing more on high school programs. The programs also range from club-based programs to actual school curriculum programs.
“It is really unique from district to district.”
The number of school involved isn’t the only thing about the Pennsylvania Rural Robotics Initiative that has been growing, either.
While it started as a program focused primarily on VEX Robotics, the program expanded this year to include another exciting aspect.
“When we started, it was pretty much just the robotics, and we had that void from February to March when VEX Robotics wound down to the end of the school year, so we connected with a company out of California called For The Win (FTW) Robotics and they partnered with us.”
FTW promotes STEM through the use of drones in schools, exploring the STEM Principles behind drones and their use in society. They offer curriculum and activities to offer students a well-rounded perspective on this emerging new technology.
Heffernan said a lot of the initiative’s member schools utilized PA Smart grant funds to purchase FTW drones, including Parrot Mambo drones, Anafi drones, and Parrot Bluegrass drones, which utilize a special sensor for agricultural uses.
The agricultural drone program is currently being piloted in Franklin and North Clarion before being rolled out all across the initiative’s footprint.
“The kids are so excited. They’re really embracing the opportunities,” Heffernan said.
“I think we’ve done a really good job of explaining these are million dollar corporations that are investing in you and this isn’t just something we’re going to do for fun.”
According to Heffernan, while the drones are new, the focus of the program hasn’t changed.
“Our key focus is to get the kids coding. That was the initial reason for buying the Parrot drones. We can pull them off the shelf and immediately start coding. It’s not like we have to build them, they’re ready to go.
“The Parrot Mambos are really classroom friendly, educational drones, so it’s something our kids are already doing right now. They’ve already had them out of the boxes and are working on coding them to do different things and to expand on our opportunities in computer science.”
While there are other schools and programs across the state working with robotics and coding drones, the Pennsylvania Rural Robotics Initiative remains unique in the scope of the program being developed.
“Everyone we talk to, whether it’s industry or government, everyone is just impressed that this isn’t just a one or two district small project, this is something that we’re coordinating regionally, and I think that’s part of what everyone is so excited about.”
Heffernan explained that having so many schools, as well as educational partners – including the Clarion University of Pennsylvania and the Carnegie Mellon University – and industry partners also helps when dealing with vendors.
“Especially when you can tell them your footprint is all of these schools, and the conversation with you gives them opportunities to showcase their products to all of them, that’s powerful, and when we’re trying to take limited resources and maximize them, it sure helps.”
While the program is expanding in terms of member schools, it is also growing within each school, as well.
“My school went from four teams last year to seven this year. There’s definitely a buzz.”
One of the great things about the program is that as it grows, it seems to be pulling in more and more students, including those who hadn’t even shown an interest in robotics and coding in the past, he explained.
“It’s showing me that what we’re doing is working and we’re engaging not just the kids you typically expect to be involved in something like this.”
Heffernan has one student, in particular, who had never shown a great deal of enthusiasm for academics, has dived into the drone program.
“I asked him what he did in his free time before, and he said he just wasted time or slept. Now, all he wants to do is repair drones and code drones. He’s even working harder to get all of his work done early just so he can come down and use the resources we have.”
Heffernan said one of the great things has been the positive reaction and support they’ve gotten in the region.
“When you tell someone we’re introducing technology to our students and trying to buy the resources for them to gain 21st century skills, no one says no. It’s just amazing.”
The amount and pace of the programs growth has been a bit of a surprise, though.
“When I started it, it was purely an educational initiative. It was to add some robotics teams and grow some offerings in the area, and since evolved into a kind of workforce economic development piece in a way that we’re engaging industry and finding out what they need from our students to take over these careers. The scope of it and the scale of it kind of blows my mind. The scope has changed in ways I never would have thought when we started.
“It’s so much more than we ever thought it was going to be and the momentum just doesn’t seem to be stopping. It’s almost unreal.”
He also noted he has more and more people reaching out to ask how they can help, from educational partners to industry to governmental agencies.
“We see this being a game-changer for a reason, and not just in education. The education is giving us something to rally everyone around, but this could be something for industry, and for our communities.”
According to Heffernan, there is even more in the works for the initiative, with some very exciting collaborations just in their very earliest stages, at a point he wasn’t willing to discuss them in depth just yet.
“It is turning into something a thousands times more than we ever imagined,” he said.
He also noted that they are constantly looking ahead, at everything from funding, and how to move forward with programming and offerings, to the relationships they’re building, which he says have been a major aspect of the initiative.
“It is the friends and partners we’ve built in this year that are providing more opportunities. These are people that would have never connected with us if not for the relationships we have, and they’re giving us opportunities to grow and bring more opportunities to our kids. The flow of cash from different places sure helps, and it is definitely needed for anything like this, but the relationships are really what’s amazing and are what’s giving us most of our opportunities.
“The program is literally is growing by the day and the week, and there are going to be so many really cool pieces as we go forward with different projects and partnerships.”
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