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Ventura County Educators Celebrate with Warfare Centers’ $80,000 win in STEM Robotics Grants

By Carol Lawrence | NSWC Port Hueneme Division | Oct. 22, 2019


Gratitude, excitement and a sense of accomplishment filled the air at a recent event in Oxnard celebrating the collaboration of three warfare centers that won $80,000 in grants for local schools.

Ventura County educators and others officially celebrated on Oct. 16 at Oxnard College the successful win by Naval Surface Center Warfare, Port Hueneme Division (NSWC PHD), Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division (NAWCWD) and Naval Facilities Engineering and Expeditionary Warfare Center (NAVFAC EXWC). The three warfare centers obtained grant funding from the Navy’s Office of Secretary of Defense funds that will pay for elementary, middle and high schools students to enter regional robotics competitions held by national nonprofit For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST).

Marcella Klein Williams, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) director at Oxnard College, told an audience of parents, teachers, students and other STEM coordinators, that through the help of the grants, 21 existing teams and 28 new teams will enter FIRST’s competition this year.

“Boys and girls growing up here in Ventura County see their future because of this,” Williams said. “The story of Ventura County is initiative and creativity.”

The school districts receiving the monies are in Oxnard, Ventura, Santa Paula, Fillmore and the Conejo Valley. Most of the schools are in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods where the need for financial and mentoring help is the greatest.

Registration for the competitions can be as high as $6,000 for a new team, so the grants will pay for student teams that enter this year. Otherwise, students would have to raise the money themselves for the first year, which is challenging for kids, families and neighborhoods that face hardships.

Ramon Flores, NSWC PHD’s STEM coordinator, viewed the robotics competitions as perfect opportunities to attract local kids early on to STEM. He joined with STEM coordinators from NAWCWD and NAVFAC EXWC to apply for, and then win, nearly 50 grants overall on behalf of the students.

Flores secured grants for 21 existing teams while the other warfare centers won grants for 28 new teams. Oxnard College and the Ventura County Office of Education helped the three centers differentiate between schools with older and newer teams, as that determined the amount of funding they could receive.

NSWC PHD Commanding Officer Capt. Ray Acevedo spoke at the event, and told the audience that supporting such initiatives and efforts is ultimately about the people, and that’s how we all will grow.

“We need people who have a desire to innovate and think of the things for tomorrow,” he said. “The common theme (among the three warfare centers) is we all have the students’ interests at heart.”

He also explained that while talent is extremely important, it’s everywhere, but opportunity is what is key.

“That’s what we’re so proud of—helping to provide the opportunity—and it’s amazing,” he added.

Out of the 365 people hired at NSWC PHD this year, Acevedo said, about one-third are graduates with engineering degrees.

Velma Lomax, Southern California regional director for Manchester, N.H.-based FIRST, received the check on behalf of the organization at the event.

“This has been many years in the making,” she said.

Afterwards, student groups demonstrated the capabilities of robots they built. Rio Mesa High School’s robot picked up, carried, dropped, and picked up again a large, orange ball as it maneuvered around an outside area.

Vance Brahosky, NSWC PHD’s deputy technical director, took over the controls of one of the students’ robots.

“Competing for and winning Department of Defense funding for this robotics initiative is another example of where we here in the Navy STEM community in Ventura County are pushing boundaries to expand opportunities for our wonderful youth,” he said. “This is so important for the community and for the Navy.”

NAWCWD Vice Cmdr. Capt. Matt Sniffin explained that his command supports such programs for multiple purposes.

“The Navy and NAWCWD enjoy a great relationship with Ventura County, and we prioritize maintaining and fostering that tight bond,” he said. “From a Navy and Department of Defense perspective, our goal is simply to maintain a competitive military and technological edge over our rivals and adversaries.  These kids, and their involvement in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, represent an investment in both time and money towards our country’s future that is undeniably important.”

Capt. Matt Riethmiller, executive officer of NAVFAC EXWC, described the joint initiative as “fantastic.”

“All of us feel it’s a great start, and we have to keep it going,” he said. “We (the three warfare centers) all view STEM the same—we cannot do enough to promote STEM.”