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With Grant in Hand, Local Robotics Students and Their NSWC PHD Mentors Await Word on How This Year’s FIRST Robotics School Competitions Will Take Place

By Teri Carnicelli | NSWC Port Hueneme Division | Sept. 3, 2020


Robotics teams from 13 schools in Ventura County recently learned they will receive financial help to participate in a prestigious robotics competition, thanks to a Department of Defense (DOD) grant and the efforts of NSWC PHD’S Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) coordinator. How PHD mentors will interact with the teams amid COVID-19 restrictions remains to be seen.

Ramon Flores, NSWC PHD STEM program coordinator, wrote and submitted applications for DOD’s STEM Grant on behalf of the pre-identified schools. The Navy’s Office of Secretary of Defense administers the grant, which provides schools with money to enter the 2020-21 For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) Robotics season.

“This represents a $22,000 investment by PHD in support of our public schools,” Flores said. “COVID-19 may be here, but PHD’s STEM support to our students continues.”

STEM coordinators with Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division and Naval Facilities Engineering and Expeditionary Warfare Center also wrote grants for an additional 22 school robotics teams.

The school districts receiving the monies are in Oxnard, Ventura, Camarillo, Santa Paula, Fillmore and the Conejo Valley.

The next and likely more challenging hurdle is to determine how school team members will work together, as well as with their Navy mentors, while Ventura County school districts remain closed during the pandemic.

According to an email Flores received Aug. 9, “Due to the impact of COVID-19, adjustments to the FIRST Robotics season are still being determined. Details … will be shared in the near future.”

Typically, the grant funds pay for elementary, middle and high school students to enter regional robotics competitions the national nonprofit FIRST holds every school year. The organization follows a regular season schedule during the academic year. The competitions’ registrations can be as high as $6,000 for a new team, and students would have to raise it themselves for the first year they participate. That burden can be challenging for kids, families and communities that face hardships.

With unprecedented challenges due to the pandemic, FIRST is trying to determine what competitions to hold and how to hold them while keeping students and volunteers healthy and safe.

“The next challenge will be finding innovative ways for our Navy mentors to engage with the students,” Flores said.

Flores lined up NSWC PHD’s mentors before he submitted the grant requests, and he is confident they will adapt however they need to in order to help their assigned school teams. In addition, he requested and received money from the Office of Naval Research to reimburse the mentors for their time, so they don’t have to use their personal leave for mentor responsibilities.

While the mentors can’t be there physically to help students assemble and program their robots, Flores says the districts, team coaches and FIRST will be looking at a hybrid approach. One option they are exploring is allowing a team, which consists of four or five students, to come onto campus with their teacher/coach for two to three hours one day per week, and have the mentor communicate with them via Skype, Zoom, Microsoft Teams or another platform.

“NSWC PHD recognizes the need to continue expanding our STEM outreach initiatives while dealing with COVID-19,” said Deputy Technical Director Vance Brahosky. “We need to continue to inspire, engage, educate and employ our future workforce.”