Howard County middle and high school robotics teams now have access to 18,000 square feet of indoor space in Columbia to test the robots they create for regional and national competitions.
The STEM Education Center was unveiled on Friday by the Universities Space Research Association, a nonprofit organization based in Columbia that advances space science and technology through research and education. The new facility is dedicated to supporting youth robotics teams.
The idea for the center came about when the association was looking for a community education partner to use extra space in its new Columbia headquarters, which was purchased from the Howard County Department of Health two years ago.
"We thought, we should look into possible use of it for STEM K to 12 activities," said Kevin Schmadel, the association's vice president of corporate affairs and communications.
STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics and, in recent years, has come to represent a national push to better prepare students for an increasing number of jobs in these sectors.
"Students are the future and something that is of interest to our universities is workforce development," said Schmadel. The association has 105 member universities. "That's our mission in education, and we have to get students interested in [STEM] early on, in middle school and in high school."
Jeffrey Isaacson, the association's president, wanted to expand the organization's educational mission to support STEM learning for students in grades kindergarten to 12, in addition to the college-level education it already supported.
He spoke with Bill Duncan of STEMaction, a Glenwood-based nonprofit that organizes STEM activities for youth, who said that its local robotics teams needed a dedicated practice space.
"There are students having to go place to place with the robots," said Schmadel. "And the lack of dedicated space really impacted the ability of students in the area to work on the robots and to compete."
The association built out the extra space in its headquarters to serve as a testing ground for robots. NASA contributed a practice field made up of a special floor to support the movements of larger robots and plastic shields that protect the students who control the robots.
Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman, NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman and several area FIRST, or For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, robotics teams attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the STEM Education Center on Friday afternoon.
FIRST is a nonprofit organization that hosts robotics leagues for students around the country. Its local leagues are supported by STEMaction and will be able to use the center for practice.
"Robotics...it's an activity that, for students, brings together different STEM fields: design, mechanical and electrical engineering, different aspects of science," Schmadel said. "And at the middle and high school level, it's really a draw because it's interesting, exciting. It pulls them in and helps get them interested in STEM careers."