Kent Wood: Quarkmine helps bring robotics, STEM to rural areas

Kent Wood

Editor's note: This article was published in Grand Traverse Business magazine's Summer 2018 issue. For more stories from the magazine, click here to read GT Business in its entirety online.

I love it when chaos comes together.

This year, rural students will have more opportunities to learn critical thinking, problem solving, and technical skills in a fun atmosphere by engaging in competitive robotics in part because of a chaotic three months of advocacy from the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce and chamber member Quarkmine, LLC.

The state of Michigan for a number of years has invested $2.5 million annually in grants to schools to use in competitive robotics. These grant dollars could be used for one platform only — a competitive robotics program called FIRST Robotics. Michigan school districts, including a few in northern Michigan, built FIRST programs and teams that became highly competitive at the state and national level.

But many school districts struggle to compete because of limited resources in their communities. Many have a hard time affording the FIRST program, finding community experts to mentor teams, or sustaining the program with equipment and travel costs to truly compete with other resource-rich schools from across the state.

It has been awhile since FIRST Robotics was inserted into the budget. A number of other competitive robotics platforms have entered the market. Some, like VEX Robotics put on by the Robotics Education & Competition (REC) Foundation, offer opportunities for multiple competitions per year at smaller price points and reusable robot kits.

Philip Leete, the principal and co-owner of Quarkmine, LLC, a Traverse City-based business that specialized in STEM programs and events for students at all grade levels, was quick to bring this to the Chamber’s attention.

Given his background in working with competitive robotics events, he knew there was an unmet need in school districts around northern Michigan for competitive STEM programming.

“Michigan schools are as different as their regions and communities. To think that one type of competitive robotics program would be a good fit for every school never made sense to me,” Leete said.

That attitude meshed with the Chamber’s mantra of “One Size Does Not Fit All,” which challenges us to advocate for ways to “right size” programs to scale to the needs of rural areas.

With a vision of seeing STEM and competitive robotics programs in all school districts, at all grade levels, the Chamber, Quarkmine partners Leete and John Gilligan — along with the backing of Grand Traverse area manufacturers — brought the idea to the attention of local state legislators Sen. Wayne Schmidt and Rep. Larry Inman. They, in turn, opened the door to their colleagues who are in charge of producing the state budget.

In March we pitched the idea of opening up the robotics grant language to include other robotics platforms to State House K-12 budget chair Tim Kelly, Senate K-12 budget chair Geoff Hansen, and Senate Appropriations chair Dave Hildenbrand. All three were very receptive to the idea, but we knew that we were coming to them with this request somewhat late in the process — which could make them hesitant to support this change.

Another issue was getting Governor Rick Snyder on board. Gov. Snyder has been a big proponent of competitive robotics, and we have him to thank for the increased interest and investment in robotics experiences across the state. The Governor was a firm believer in the FIRST Robotics program and was not likely to easily support competition for it at this time.

After some wrangling, legislators and the Governor reached a compromise. The budget language would be opened up to include other VEX robotics platforms. But, in doing so the leaders also agreed to increase the robotics pie another half million dollars to an event $3 million!

As someone who has personally seen and been a part of STEM growth in the region’s schools, Leete is ecstatic.

“Right now, two major programs in Michigan are REC VEX Robotics and FIRST Robotics. Both programs have opportunities for students at all grade levels. Now, a school could choose either one and receive a grant from the state. This is a big deal for northern Michigan!”

Steve Prissel, formerly superintendent at Elk Rapids Public Schools and now leader of the McBain schools, agreed.

“It is outstanding to see the support from Legislators in their approval of the $3 million to promote Robotics/STEM,” Prissel said.

“Each school district has different needs and priorities. What is certain is that students in all grades K-12 can benefit from the programs, and I believe the flexibility in this funding will assist in the needs of the priorities in individual school districts and communities. I appreciate our elected officials making this a priority for our students.”

Seeing public policy go from idea to implementation is thrilling, and not without its roller coaster ups and downs — especially in the budget. We went from moments of “this is all going to happen!” to “none of this is going to happen” — sometimes seemingly in a heartbeat.

More students in rural areas will participate in competitive robotics programs, thanks to the persistent, chaotic work of some individuals who are dedicated to making small, but transformational, changes to how the state invests in competitive robotics and STEM education.

Most important for this year, it will allow more of our future talent pool in northern Michigan to experience the thrill of competitive robotics and possibly develop a lifelong interest and enthusiasm in the STEM skills that will drive our economy forward — one robot at a time.

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