Students in Carroll County Public Schools have long had opportunities to join teams for athletics and performance. In the next two years, though, CCPS hopes to have a robotics competition team in every school.
After a few months of working to scale up robotics programs countywide, half of CCPS schools are represented with a robotics team, Jason Anderson, chief academic, equity and accountability officer for CCPS, said during a presentation to the Board of Education on Nov. 13.
CCPS teams will be able to compete in the national nonprofit FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics League. The league issues a new challenge each year and teams have a few months to build their bots before they compete. Competitions start at the local level and go all the way up to a world competition.
There are four levels of FIRST, from LEGO robotics competitions aimed at elementary-schoolers to advanced high-school robotics.
To put teams in more schools, CCPS has found several community partners, including the student robotics groups that have already existed in the community. Anderson said that when he started with CCPS, he immediately heard about their “amazing success.”
Just one example is the RoboCavs, the South Carroll High School robotics team that secured a fourth-place finish in the FIRST Robotics World Championship in Detroit.
“I started thinking to myself, 'There’s something special going on in this county in regards to robotics.’ ”
But within the school system, there was a demand for more.
The locally based Partnership and Inspiration for Engineering Education and Entrepreneurship, or PIE3, is a nonprofit that grew out of the Robo-Lions competition team, which includes students from Liberty High School and nearby middle schools. Their mission is STEM education and cooperation, and making sure the opportunity to learn those skills is open to everyone no matter their socioeconomic or cultural background.
They’re lending their institutional knowledge to the partnership with CCPS. The two jointly applied for and received a robotics grant from the Maryland State Department of Education.
The Robo-Lions were in attendance at the Nov. 13 Board of Education meeting, robots in tow, to present plaques of appreciation to the county school board and Superintendent Steve Lockard. At the meeting, Rose Young, director of PIE3, said the support of the superintendent and board has allowed more students in CCPS to experience the benefits of robotics activities and STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
In a later interview, she told the Times that the folks at PIE3 are very excited by the expansion through the partnership with CCPS. One of the big things it offers is space. Hosting the teams in schools gives them more room and makes it so students don’t need transportation to get to team practice. Some teams were previously based out of members’ homes.
CCPS’s participation allows students to participate at no cost to them, Young said. PIE3 tries to minimize costs as much as they can as a nonprofit, but have had to charge a fee through the Freedom Area Rec Council.
When you’re talking about 21 teams, that’s a lot of administration, Young said. She’s helped with the logistics of registering with FIRST and making sure teams order the right materials, as well as training people from CCPS in this as the program scales.
They also found a two-day training for first-time coaches, and helped write that into the grant request to the State Department of Education. Teachers have been affectionately calling it “LEGO school.”
On Dec. 14, at Carroll Community College, PIE3 will host its annual competition, the Roar of the Robots. But for the first time in its 11 years, all of the teams will be either community- or school-based teams from Carroll County. Organizers are expecting 27 teams.
This is the 20th robotics competition Young has helped organize, and she said her goal for the day is to make everything run smoothly and keep things fun — so hopefully coaches and students will want to come back for more.
A big piece of the funding puzzle was the Kahlert Foundation, who supplied a two-year grant for $80,000 in total to CCPS.
The foundation’s mission is to fund nonprofits “to improve the quality of life and well-being in the areas of health care, youth programs, education, veterans and human services,” according to their website.
Anderson said during his presentation to the school board, "When we sat down with [foundation head Greg] Kahlert, he challenged us. And we think he had a healthy amount of skepticism that we could pull this off.”
It has been gratifying to see the number of teams that have started in just the past few months, Anderson said.
For example, at the start of 2019, CCPS had no teams at FIRST’s youngest level, which is LEGO-based and is aimed at students in kindergarten through third grade. Now there are seven teams, across three elementary schools. There were previously two teams for students in grades four through eight, both at Elmer Wolfe Elementary School. Now there are 20 across 14 elementary and middle schools.
However, the funding from the two grants, Anderson said, “is essentially to get this off the ground. It’s not going to be able to sustain it.” The money from both grants has been used for materials for the robotics teams.
One avenue going forward is to reach out to school PTAs and PTOs to ask them to support robotics teams if it’s something they value, Anderson said. For athletics and performing arts, parent booster groups are formed to support performing arts and athletics teams.
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Paying staff members has come through CCPS itself, Anderson said. Coaches receive a small stipend for the hours they spend working with teams. CCPS is looking at more ways to provide training to expand their capacity.
Coaches and students who have experience in robotics teams came to the board meeting to speak in favor of more teams in more schools.
Benjamin Hroblak, who has been a Robo-Lions team member since he was in eighth grade and is now a high school junior, spoke to the board about his experiences. Recently, he was accepted to a Northrop Grumman High School Involvement Partnership mentoring and scholarship program. Of the three students selected, three — himself, Kyle McMahon and Chimwemwe Chinkuyu — were Robo-Lions members.
Hroblak said, “It’s been the greatest experience of my life. It’s taught me so many skills. Not only learning to build and compete with robots ... but I’ve also learned great teamwork skills and also how to communicate well, getting a group to come together to build something like that in just six short weeks.”
If you go
What: Roar of the Robots competition featuring 27 teams from Carroll County
Where: Carroll Community College in the Main Hall, 1601 Washington Road, Westminster
When: Noon, Dec. 14
An earlier version of this story was unclear as to what students participate in the Robo-Lions team. The Robo-Lions include students from Liberty High School, but the team is not exclusive to that school.