NEWS | Sept. 23, 2019

Warfare Centers Win $80,000 in Grants to Fund School Robot Competitions

By Carol Lawrence NSWC PHD

Thanks to the successful joint efforts of three warfare centers to secure nearly $80,000 in grants, local students will compete in regional robotics competitions, a step that could potentially lead them to science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, careers.

Ramon Flores, Naval Surface Warfare Center, Port Hueneme Division’s STEM coordinator, saw the robotics competitions, organized by the STEM-focused national nonprofit For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, or, FIRST, as perfect opportunities to attract local kids early on to STEM. So, he joined with STEM coordinators from Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division and Naval Facilities Engineering and Expeditionary Warfare Center to apply for, and then win, nearly 50 grants on behalf of Ventura County elementary, middle and high schools students. The grants pay the costs to enter FIRST’s regional robot competitions.

Robotics is a new focus for Flores, but he’s seen how the topic early on attracts students who then often study STEM in college, and enter STEM-focused careers.

“We (NSWC PHD) want to get them interested early in STEM fields,” he said. “Then, we want them to be academically prepared to succeed in college. I know students who weren’t well prepared in high school, so their four-year college experience became five and six years.”

Collaborating on a STEM project was also new for the three centers, he added. Working together enabled the trio to submit the large number of applications to the Navy’s Office of Secretary of Defense on a very tight time frame. All are also providing mentors to help the FIRST teams build their robots.

Flores secured grants for 21 existing teams while the other warfare centers won grants for 28 new teams, bringing the total grant value to $78,200. The school districts receiving the funds are in Oxnard, Ventura, Santa Paula, Fillmore and the Conejo Valley.

Most of the schools in the receiving districts are in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods where the need for financial and mentoring help is the greatest, said Velma Loma, Southern California regional director for FIRST, which is based in Manchester, N.H. The robot competitions’ registrations can be as high as $6,000 for a new team, so the grants will pay for student teams that enter this year, she added. 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’s thought was, ‘Let’s get them started; then the schools and districts will give it to them in the future once they see the benefit of it,” she said.

The warfare centers chose to support FIRST’s robot competition program because it’s already in numerous local schools, and offers established regional and national competitions.

“We (NSWC PHD) don’t have to put together a competition; the curriculum already exists, and the robot kits already exist,” Flores said. “The funding is available, and students can get high school credit toward high school graduation for working on this.”

To support all participating schools, the three centers applied for grants that paid for new and old student teams. Oxnard College and the Ventura County Office of Education helped them differentiate between schools with older and newer teams, as that determined the amount of funding they could receive.

Students build robots from August to the following spring and then compete in the regional competitions against other teams to narrow down which winners will enter the national competition. Last year, a local alternative education school, Frontier High School in Oxnard, won its way to FIRST’s world championship competition in Houston, Texas, where it captured the Highest Rookie Seeded award for its division and became the county’s first World Championship winners.

“It’s really our Cinderella story,” Loma said.

Loma, a former robotics teacher who started robotics teams in the county, said the program’s benefit is evident when kids who are challenged in various ways, such as Frontier’s team, connect with building robots, and then blossom.

“I have seen this program work,” she said. “I’ve seen kids who were going to drop out of school, and are now engineering majors. (Some of) these are kids who have never belonged to anything. It has changed them dramatically. That’s what robotics does.”