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City robotics center aims to spark interest in STEM careers

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The TechPoint Foundation for Youth is seeking corporate support to launch a robotics-themed center to pique K-12 students' interest in careers involving science, technology, engineering and math.

Robotics competitions would be the flagship of the program to be located in a center that would be open year-round, although other hands-on activities also are contemplated.

The program would allow students to work in teams and hone skills such as writing software or learning the engineering fundamentals needed to build robots. 

“We need a building,” said Marvin E. Bailey, president of Harrison College’s northwest-side campus and chairman of the TechPoint Foundation for Youth.

Ideally, the facility would be in or near downtown to ensure easy access, particularly for underprivileged students in the urban area.

The building needs to have at least 8,000 square feet of space, with the capacity to house a machine shop and “large collaborative spaces for students to gather,” according to a request for proposals the foundation issued.

“We’re going to need to drop some computer labs in there” as well, Bailey said.

TechPoint’s so-called STEM Collaboratory already has picked up some initial funding, including a gift of $106,000 from the Interactive Intelligence Foundation, created by Indianapolis-based call center software maker Interactive Intelligence.

Bailey also was thrilled to receive a $100,000 donation from an individual donor during a recent breakfast meeting.

IUPUI has committed to providing students to work as mentors at the center, while Ivy Tech Community College has agreed to help manage it. 

The TechPoint Foundation was created 11 years ago by some of the city’s top technology leaders. It has worked on a variety of fronts since then, including a collaboration four years ago with Indianapolis Public Schools on the creation of New Tech High, at Arsenal Technical High School.

More recently, the foundation has been backing IndianaFirst, an initiative for robotics education. That program assembles student teams that must build robots in 45 days from scratch–instilling technical and project-management skills.

The new STEM Collaboratory initiative, which is built around the robotics theme, was modeled on other successful programs such as the Michigan Engineering Zone, a partnership between Detroit Public Schools and the University of Michigan.

The Indianapolis program was spun out of broader discussions with IndianaFirst, the city of Indianapolis, IUPUI’s School of Science and Engineering, Ivy Tech Community College, Interactive Intelligence Foundation and The Indianapolis Foundation.

“We are looking for community partners interested in removing the obstacles that prevent underserved populations from accessing quality [science, technology, engineering and math] programs,” the TechPoint Foundation’s RFP states.

“Robotics teams are an innovative, effective way that schools across the country have begun to engage students in learning and applying STEM skills,” Mayor Greg Ballard said in a statement.

The city will host the inaugural Indianapolis Robotics Championship at Bankers Life Fieldhouse Jan. 19-20. Invitations were sent to all high schools in Marion County.

That event will provide a taste of the kind of year-round robotics programs TechPoint Foundation envisions for the center, which Bailey wants to see open by fall of next year.

His pitch to the business community is that such a program to boost STEM skills has a practical potential payoff to tech businesses constantly kvetching about the lack of skilled graduates available locally for hire.

“Jobs exist out there in the STEM world, but we just don’t have a supply of students out there interested in STEM careers,” Bailey said.

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