By Heather Wilburn, Fleet Readiness Center East
CHERRY POINT — Four area schools will receive help funding extracurricular activities centered in science, technology, engineering and math, thanks to Department of Defense STEM grants secured by Fleet Readiness Center East.
Five grants totaling $3,375 will aid teams participating in robotics programs at Gramercy Christian School, Broad Creek Middle School, Croatan High School and Roger Bell New Tech Academy in Havelock. The teams, coached by educators and volunteer engineers from FRC East, compete in the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology Lego League and FIRST Tech Challenge activities, which provide students with real-world problem solving experiences and challenge them to think like engineers.
“We’re proud FRCE was able to secure this Department of Defense grant funding to promote STEM activities at area schools,” Mark Meno, director of maintenance, repair and overhaul engineering at the facility, said. “Providing support to STEM education programs is an important part of our commitment to the community, and opportunities like this help reinforce that effort.”
Bettina Jahr, engineering education outreach coordinator at FRC East, applied for the grants using educator and engineer volunteer input regarding the specific teams. This award marks the third year FRC East applications have secured the funding for area FIRST Lego League Robotics teams.
Four of the grants, provided by the DoD STEM Robotics program, carry an “unrestricted” designation, which means they can cover a number of FIRST season costs, including materials or equipment, competition registration, team travel costs or technology to support the team’s virtual needs.
“This is an ongoing grant program, and we apply yearly,” Ms. Jahr explained. “Since eastern North Carolina is predominantly rural with many diverse minorities, as well as a plethora of military children, the DoD STEM family works hard to reserve funding for these affected students. The unrestricted funding was awarded due to hardships for students and educators, and due to COVID-19.”
The four unrestricted grants secured by FRC East are part of 82 awarded by the program nationwide. More than 120 teams applied for the funding, which can help provide students with opportunities that wouldn’t be accessible otherwise.
“In our area, there are several students who are living in low income families that are unable to pay for a registration fee and the school doesn’t have a large budget for our program,” said Robin Peeples, an electrical engineer with MQ-8 Avionics who volunteers as a FIRST Lego League coach.
The grants will help reduce the financial burden both the schools and students experience as part of participation in the league. There are costs associated with equipment procurement, hosting competitions and travel to state-level events, as well as the team’s required research project.
“Each team has to come up with a solution to a social, economic or community issue and be able to present that as part of the competition,” Ms. Peeples said. “The students end up having to do all of this themselves, which means they have to find the funds on their own time to have a successful project. We only have so many places to look for more sponsorship in the area, and this grant helps a lot with giving them a boost.”
The program is important to the students who participate, she noted.
“It is something they look forward to and gain a lot of experience with that they all enjoy and thrive with,” Ms. Peeples said. “They also get to network with engineers and other schools and technical communities.”
The grant funding secured by FRC East represents a small part of the support the depot provides to the robotics teams, Ms. Jahr noted. The majority of the support comes in the volunteer hours FRC East engineers provide.
Ms. Peeples has been coaching FIRST Lego League teams for three years, after becoming involved with the program shortly after arriving at FRC East. She has seen firsthand the benefits the teams provide to students.
“Most extracurriculars at schools are academic, sports and band-related. Some students who do not thrive in these aspects are able to thrive in a technical discipline, increasing their confidence and knowledge base,” she explained. “Even those who do participate in these other extracurricular are able to gain technical exposure that they do not receive academically. Since students do not get this exposure through school courses, they can find a passion for STEM they wouldn’t have found otherwise.”