Using robots they designed, built and programmed, more than 200 Kentucky students competed in the VEX IQ Challenge earlier this month at the Hardin County Schools Early College and Career Center (EC3).
There’s no doubt this regional event — with more than 50 teams from the Lincoln Trail region and other areas of the Commonwealth — and the growing number of schools that are developing new robotics teams present unique opportunities for individual students.
But this also signals new assets as our communities work to develop a pipeline of talent that meets the needs of our region’s existing employers and attracts new business investments.
An estimated 1.3 million vacant STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) jobs exist in America, and growth as well as an aging workforce will increase the demand for these skills. That equates to incredible career options for young workers as well as a responsibility for educators and workforce and economic development professionals to provide STEM learning and training opportunities.
“Vex Robotics and the Vex IQ Challenge is all about engaging students in STEM activities,” said Jason Neagle, EC3 Project Lead the Way instructor and HCS VEX Robotics coach. “It’s a hands-on activity that teaches programming, simple machines and mechanics and, as we’ve witnessed firsthand, inspires a passion for science and technology.”
Additionally, he emphasized that students develop highly sought-after soft skills including teamwork and problem solving through the program.
VEX Robotics is the world’s fastest growing robotics program for students and is the only technical program that allows students to compete on an international level each year, Neagle said. In fact, the world championships is held in Louisville, and attracted 1,200 teams from 34 countries last year.
Further, Neagle said, the statewide number of middle school robotics teams has doubled for three consecutive years. The elementary program, which started last year, has experienced similar growth.
As One-Stop Director at Kentucky Career Center – Lincoln Trail, I’m excited to see more younger students pushing themselves to develop stronger STEM skills, as it helps increase awareness of the in-demand careers of the 21st century workforce.
In addition, Neagle noted, such programs are addressing the gender gap in STEM education. While elementary students tend to show an interest in STEM fields regardless of their gender, fewer girls participate at the middle and high school levels. Activities like VEX Robotics are proving a way to keep girls engaged.
The Kentucky Career Center – Lincoln Trail and the Lincoln Trail Workforce Development Board work closely with employers throughout our eight-county region, which includes Breckinridge, Grayson, Hardin, LaRue, Marion, Meade, Nelson and Washington counties. One of the highest collective priorities of our region’s employers is developing a workforce with strong technical skills.
Many of these career opportunities are in advanced manufacturing fields, but too many students and parents are not aware that today’s manufacturers offer interesting careers with high pay and growth potential. STEM education and engaging programs like VEX Robotics can help change that.
Neagle said several high school students he coached entered advanced manufacturing programs such as KY FAME (Kentucky Federation for Advanced Manufacturing) after graduation in May. They might not have chosen that path without VEX Robotics, he said.
“The robotics program shows them what’s possible,” Neagle said. “They see a real-world connection, and think, ‘If I can do this, I can program robotic arms or design machines in a manufacturing setting.’”
Secondary education is an essential part of our region’s workforce development system and the creation of career pathways that lead to self-sufficiency and continued prosperity in our communities. Growth in STEM programs like VEX robotics could light the first step on many students’ pathways.
Carter Dyson is One-Stop Director at Kentucky Career Center – Lincoln Trail, which is overseen by the Lincoln Trail Workforce Development Board. He can be reached at 270-766-5115 or email@example.com.