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House Bill 552 proposes new rules for competitive robotics

On Tuesday, the House committee on K-12 education met and, in part, discussed House Bill 552, a bill focused on robotics programs in the state. The bill would establish an educational and competitive after-school robotics grant program, require the State Board of Education to adopt rules for competitive robotics, and permit excused absences for competitive robotics events.

After a motion, the bill moved on to the House education appropriations committee with a favorable report. Below is direct discussion from sponsors on the robotics bill and questions posed by legislators. The following is a transcript of the introduction by House Majority Whip Rep. Jon Hardister, R-Guilford

“I’m really excited about this bill. My colleague, Rep. Beasley, thank you for being here. I’m very, very excited about this. Last weekend, I had the opportunity to go to the state robotics championship, and I don’t know how many of you have ever been to a robotics competition, but it is awesome. I mean this is on par with any kind of football event I’ve ever been to, basketball, any kind of athletic high school event. And it was a state championship. It was at Campbell University, and it’s amazing how much work goes into this kind of competition.

The STEM behind it — the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics that goes into it — and some people might argue that it’s not physical, but this actually is physical. I mean these … if you’ve ever been to a NASCAR race and you look at the pits and what they call pit row where they’re down there working on these cars — they’re laying down on the ground, they’re moving around — that’s exactly what this is like. And then the hand-eye coordination that goes into the competition is just incredible.

What this bill really seeks to do is to put a spotlight on robotics and to really put it on par with high school athletics. There are essentially three parts to the bill, and if you look at the bill summary … one part is a grant for an after-school robotics program, and there’s criteria laid out there — which we can walk through if we need to — but also the bill seeks to require the State Board of Education to adopt rules for competitive robotics as an athletic competition. The third part of the bill is to provide excused absences for robotics, so it creates a new category there so that if a student goes to a robotics competition, just like they might to go any kind of athletic competition, they can be given an excused absence. 

So what’s the reason behind all this? Well the reason is, I don’t have to tell you that less than 1% of student-athletes go professional. However, if you look at robotics and the competitions that are taking place as it relates to STEM and CTE, I would argue that every single one of those students has a chance to go professional in some kind of science, technology, engineering, mathematics profession. There are a lot of companies in this state, including one in my district called ABCO that uses robotics equipment for manufacturing. They actually came up with the idea for this bill, and some of the other stakeholders I’ve worked with — we’re asking for a grant of $1.6 million. I mean, that’s an arbitrary number, I’d argue that’s relatively low, but I think the state is really taking the first step in investing in this and defining robotics and really making this a part of our educational platform statewide. 

I would submit that the grant money would probably need to grow over time and we might need to review this over time to see how we can continue to put a spotlight on it, but I’ll simply close … this is a huge opportunity. I mean if you want education to help create the jobs and provide our students with the chance to get an education that can result in them having a career, this is the way to do it.”

Rep. Beasley, D-Mecklenburg, a co-sponsor on the bill, had the following comments:

“I just wanted to take my hat off to Rep. Hardister who brought this idea up. I have two different teams that are from my districts and, in particular, one team mentioned that they have to go out every single year and find about $50,000, and if they don’t come up with the amount of money that they need, then they actually have to start cutting kids … and as Rep. Hardister mentioned, this is a direct job-creating program.

Many of the people in this program directly go and get jobs in these industries right after. I think this is a small investment that could go a very long way in finding a lot of opportunities for people, particularly for those people who are in areas where they might not have as much exposure to electronics and robotics. So again, I applaud my fellow primary sponsors on the bill and I thank the committee for consideration.”

The following were questions asked by fellow legislators about the bill (shortened here for conciseness and clarity).

Question from Rep. Brody, R-Union: Number one on the criteria is evidence that the “applicant has or will be able to establish a relationship with a robotics partner.” Could you briefly say what that is and what that means to schools let’s say that don’t have — I’m assuming that a robotics partner is a company or something like that — but that don’t have anything near them that they may be attached to as a partner.

Response from Rep. Hardister: It could be a nonprofit or it could be some kind of educational organization that’s engaged in robotics, but I’m happy to defer to staff if they want to define that more specifically.

Response from staff: There is a definition of robotics partner on page 1, line 16 of the bill. It includes a “third party entity such as a nonprofit organization or institution of higher education that’s approved by DPI.”

Question from Rep. Hugh Blackwell, R-Burke: There are many school systems and schools around the state who already have robotics programs. I assume they are all eligible to now try to switch to partial or total funding of those programs through these grants, and the fact that it’s not a new program would not reflect negatively on their eligibility.

Response from Rep. Hardister: Rep. Blackwell, that’s correct.

Question from Rep. Blackwell: My second question regards the definition of the “robotics partner,” which as I understand it they must have, right? It says they have to have a national presence in robotics education and competition. Previously, it talks about universities, but we may have a school in North Carolina … I don’t know that they’ve got a national presence, and you gentlemen are from Mecklenburg and Guilford, you’ve got probably a lot of business and industry and things going on in those counties that we don’t have in some of the more rural areas, and I would ask you all if you might take a look at that part of the bill. The concept is perfect, I think, but I think we ought to be careful that we don’t unintentionally limit it to those who’ve already got the best access to the premier companies that seem to be located in the Tier 3 counties where they’re very prosperous, and we’re trying like heck in the small counties to gain that kind of programming.

Response from Rep. Hardister: Rep. Blackwell … that is an excellent point. I understand exactly where you’re going with that. If we get a favorable report today, I’m happy to work with you. I see exactly what your concerns are.

Question from Rep. Charles Graham, D-Robeson: I think this is a great opportunity, but my concern is going back to Rep. Blackwell. You mentioned you were at the [state championships] of robotics here in North Carolina. How many rural competitors did you have that you recall?

Response from Rep. Hardister: I don’t know the exact answer. I believe there are somewhere around 167 robotics teams registered in the state, and I believe 63, 64 of them made it to the state championship, which was last weekend. As far as rural, they come from all over the state. I don’t know the exact breakdown between urban and rural, but I would point out … there was a school there from your district, from Robeson County. I would submit that currently, though, I don’t know the exact numbers across the state. As it grows, I think you’re going to see high schools forming teams all over the state and hopefully we’ll grow this into something that’s extremely successful.

Response from Rep. Beasley: Thank you for your question, Rep. Graham. I think one of the best things about this program is that it will provide more equitable access to a lot of the areas that you’re talking about. Some of these places that may not be able to go. For example, in my district one of our biggest supporters of robotics is Siemens, which is also in my district. We want to be able to provide those funding streams for schools and for teams that are in more rural areas that may not have a Siemens next door. … I think this program could very well address that. I know that Rep. Hardister mentioned a couple examples of teams that were there. I also saw some that were from Greene County and Pitt County and a few others that were a little bit further out east, so I think that we could have a lot of opportunities here to grow this program in certain areas where we might not necessarily have teams right now.

(Note: View the full list of robotics teams that competed in the NC FIRST Robotics competition here.)

Comment from Rep. Graham: That is my concern. It’s a great idea, I like the idea. My concern is the haves and have-nots, and I’m really concerned about those folks who already have a leg up, and they have a strong robotics program. They’re already out there. They really don’t need any support, if the truth be known. They’re going to get those students to those robotics competitions. My concern is those rural counties who don’t have the resources available, but they have the knowledge, they have the intelligence, they have the students who want to participate, but they just don’t have the means as the urban Mecklenburg or Wake County students have. And I’m really concerned about those counties not being able to participate, and let’s level the playing surface and make sure there’s something in this legislation that will ensure those students in those rural, poor counties have an opportunity to participate. If that’s there, then I will certainly support this 100%.

Response from Rep. Hardister: Those are very fair points, and I would submit two things. First is that the creation of this grant I think will help those schools in rural areas probably more so than those in urban areas because, to your point, those schools that are located in urban areas, they have in most cases more resources. This grant would go a long way in rural areas to help them. I think you’d get more bank for your buck there, according to this bill, and hopefully if we can expand on the funding in the future. But the other thing that I want to point out is that there are manufacturing companies in what you might classify as rural areas. … A lot of those companies would benefit from STEM and robotics and things like this, and I think are eager to partner with school districts. … You have a fair point. This is not a panacea. This is not going to solve all of our problems in the rural areas, but I think it’s a step in the right direction.

Question from Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Orange: My son participates in these robotics competitions. He’s been doing it for four years. He spends more time on building robots than he does on playing video games, so I see it as a very healthy activity for a 15-year-old, and the conversations are amazing. … As far as I know from my son, there are two major robotics competition leagues in North Carolina. They are both run by private organizations and they have very different approaches to how they do robotics. … I just want to make sure this bill doesn’t have anything in it that’s protective of one provider over all other providers … but I also wonder on line 16 on page 1 where it indicates “such as a nonprofit organization” — I wonder from staff, do you believe that would exclude a for-profit robotics competition organization from participating as a robotics partner?

Response from staff: It says “such as,” so it’s an example. I don’t think that it would exclude a for-profit group.

Comment from Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, chairman of the House K-12 education committee: I do have a comment I’d like to add as a co-sponsor on the bill. In my years here at the legislature, I must tell you I’ve never seen anything like robotics and its impact on young people across all age groups, all ethnic barriers, all socioeconomic barriers. Robotics opens the door to what I refer to as competency-based education. Kids are just drawn to this. It’s almost like the magic elixir of education. They use everything that they’re learning in every other discipline in a school when it comes to robots. And as I said, all age groups, all socioeconomic groups. Everywhere I go, the fascination with robotics and the breadth of what robotics means is truly incredible, so I’m pleased to join this.

Comment from Rep. Blackwell: One of the things that I think that is exciting about the bill is that it also has application in the special education area. We’ve had very successful competitive teams from the North Carolina School for the Deaf in Morganton who have placed in the top finishers in competitions with hearing teams, and that is an area in which I think we also can benefit from this, and there are other special needs that could probably get excited about this as well.

Following their discussion, Rep. Horn opened comments to the audience.

Comment from Renee Miller, Coach of the Tundrabots, FTC Team #7083: FIRST sponsors four different levels of competition, running from elementary school through seniors in high school. The high school teams with large robots are what Rep. Hardister witnessed on Saturday, but I work with a second high school league that works with smaller robots, and we would be pleased for you to come and see us over at N.C. State one Thursday evening should you care to join us. What’s exciting to me about FIRST is that 75% of our students go on to a STEM career. Having worked with STEM almost all my life, to have even girls participating in that level is pretty incredible. I think this is one of the best investments that the state of North Carolina could make in STEM careers, which is a needed area for us as employers. 

Yasmin Bendaas

Yasmin Bendaas is a Science writer.  A North Carolina native, she received her master’s degree in Science & Medical Journalism at UNC Chapel Hill, where she was a Park Fellow. She received her Bachelor of Arts in anthropology in 2013 from Wake Forest University, where she double-minored in journalism and Middle East and South Asia studies. As an undergraduate student, Bendaas gained insight into public health when she interned at the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, a statewide grantmaker focused on rural health, including access to primary care, diabetes, community-centered prevention, and mental health and substance abuse. 

As a journalist, Bendaas has been funded twice by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for fieldwork in Algeria — first to cover a disappearing indigenous tattoo tradition, and again to look at how climate change affects rural sheepherding practices.