West Michigan Benefiting From State Investment in FIRST Robotics Programs

Originally posted in MLive on July 18, 2014

In one year, West Michigan Aviation Academy’s FIRST Robotics program grew from one, 16-member team to three teams totaling 40 members, illustrating the growing popularity of the program in the region and state.

Teams of students construct machines to perform a specific task, which changes every year at FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics competitions.

West Michigan coaches and advisers credit state lawmakers for bolstering the movement with a $3 million investment this past school year and another $2 million for district grants is in the 2014-15 budget.

The governor was joined at the June bill signing by winning students from the state’s FIRST Robotics competition in April.

“A FIRST Robotics program is a $30,000 to $40,000 investment and that is not easy to do when many schools are strapped for cash, ‘’ said Ron Baum, engineering and robotics adviser for the aviation charter school. “The legislators helped schools with the expense for this fun, exciting, creative, innovative program that can be a high-paying career.

“A lot of our students are focusing on engineering and technology, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, and we could possibly have a fourth team next year.”

Doug Hepfer, coach of the award-winning Grandville Public Schools RoboDawgs said schools last year were able to qualify for at least $4,500 to help with the expensive program because of state revenue. He said the district’s three teams have 80 members who benefited from around $18,000 in state cash.

“It is exciting the state is putting money into these types of extra-curricular programs that drive STEM education,” said Hepfer, who said it used to require a lot more fundraising. “People are becoming more aware of what an exciting education opportunity this is.”

Harrison Park School, a K-8 program in Grand Rapids Public Schools, started a robotics program last year. West Catholic High School’s robotics program established a middle school program that encompasses students from 15 private, public, and charter schools as well as home schooled students.

Last year, 40 West Michigan high school robotics teams matched wits at the FIRST Robotics competition at Grand Valley State University.

Hepfer said the program is experiencing a “tremendous boom.”