STEM Initiatives

How A Midwestern State Became a National Leader in K-12 Robotics Teams in 4 Years

Indiana's State Robotics Initiative Emphasizes Educator Support and Combines Public, Industry, and Nonprofit Resources

As 2022 winds to a close, nearly a million K–12 students across the United States are ramping up their robotics skills, competing in local and regional competitions with a hopeful eye toward their state championships – and after that, the ultimate achievement for K–12 robotics teams: the VEX World Championships that kick off in late April 2023.

One state leads the nation on the number of students participating in robotics competitions, and it’s probably not the state you’d guess. Indiana’s robotics initiative engages about 20,000 students each year, with teams from schools in every county and across every grade level. Just over a third of Indiana’s robotics students are girls, 45% are from resource-limited communities, and 35% are students of color.

Drones as Vehicles for Teaching STEM? You Bet

In episode 5 of THE Journal Insider podcast, editor Kristal Kuykendall visits with Robotics Education and Competition Foundation CEO Dan Mantz, who explains the foundation’s recent adjustments to its mission and vision, the addition of drones and "vertical robotics" curricula and competitions, and how REC Foundation's exciting student robotics competitions are helping prepare the workforce of tomorrow. Stream the Podcast

Indiana’s frontrunner status in expanding STEM education in public schools — and in making STEM education more equitable — did not happen by accident.

TechPoint Foundation For Youth, or TPF4Y, launched 21 years ago with the goal of exposing more Indiana students to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers — and providing them the education foundations they’d need to enter those fields.

“TPF4Y is on a mission to ensure that all Indiana’s underserved K–12 students have access to experiential learning opportunities that increase STEM knowledge and inspire STEM career exploration,” the organization’s website reads. “The more students participate in STEM learning opportunities after school, the more interested they become in STEM subjects and majors.” Priority populations are those under-represented in STEM career fields: students from under-resourced communities, female students, and non-white students, the foundation’s mission statement says.

TPF4Y’s efforts during its first decade took shape through various programs, including helping open the state’s first urban-serving New Tech High in 2007; a STEM Mentors program that connects teachers with experienced STEM professionals to develop teacher- and classroom-specific, hands-on curricula; and support of the then-fledgling FIRSTIndiana robotics programs operating in a handful of Indianapolis schools.

How It Started: A Mayor With an Eye To The Future of STEM

In 2012, then-mayor of Indianapolis Greg Ballard threw his influence (and perhaps most importantly, his philanthropic network) behind robotics as an ideal vehicle for getting students excited about STEM. He’d attended a VEX Robotics student championship event and was impressed, TP4FY CEO George Giltner explained in an interview with THE Journal.

Ballard asked TP4FY to head up a new private-public STEM initiative in his city, and he helped fundraise ahead of the first Indianapolis VEX Robotics Championship that year; the goal was to “provide an opportunity for all Indianapolis high school students to participate in a world-class robotics event.” Grants covered each school’s cost for the equipment required to form a robotics team, and initially, the program served the city’s 38 high schools.

Within four years, IndyVRC awarded more than 180 grants to public schools for robotics teams, getting almost 3,000 students into robotics, on an annual budget of about $170,000, which was covered mostly by corporate donors concerned about STEM talent pools already lagging behind STEM industry needs.

Giltner, who’d been teaching school, coaching robotics teams, and volunteering for TPF4Y for the previous decade, joined the foundation full-time in early 2016 as TechPoint’s advisory board was deliberating its strategy — a strategy that would be a crucial turning point for the organization and for the entire state’s workforce and public education system.

“The foundation was looking at their strategic plan for the next five years around that time,” considering the best avenues for growing STEM education and participation in K–12 schools, he said. “We explored coding clubs, drones, esports, Science Olympiad, and robotics. The one that emerged that was so multi-faceted and got the most kids excited was robotics.”

Meanwhile, Ballard — who’d opted not to run again and was preparing to leave office in early 2016 — was still thinking about how to grow robotics, Giltner recalled. “He came to us at TechPoint and said, ‘What if you took this citywide initiative and went statewide with it?’ His term was ending and he wanted to make sure his legacy continued. He made a lot of introductions to help connect TechPoint with major donors so we could grow robotics across all of Indiana.”

A Citywide Effort Goes Statewide

In 2016, TPF4Y partnered with the Indiana Department of Workforce Development, Project Lead The Way, VEX Robotics, and the Robotics Education and Competition Foundation to officially launch the Indiana State Robotics Initiative.

Thanks to that network of state, industry, and nonprofit support along with initial major donors like Roche Diagnostics, Eli Lilly and Co., and Guggenheim Life & Annuity, the state robotics initiative led by TPF4Y planned to provide grant funds to any K–12 school that wanted to start a robotics team; the grants covered the cost of the “kit” — the parts students use to build and program their robots that they then compete with against other schools’ teams.

But the cost of the robotics equipment was not the only barrier — something Ballard emphasized as he helped bring the groups together for the statewide push, Giltner said.

“Ballard had the right idea,” he said. “The four barriers for schools are that they’re not aware of why robotics is valuable and important in education, so we worked on getting that message out; they don’t have extra money for a new robotics program, so we provided funds and materials for first two years; they don’t know how to start or lead a robotics team, so we trained the educators to be robotics team coaches for the first two years a school participated; and they need to be supported when they first start out, so we were available to help them at any time for first two years.”

When the statewide program launched, he said, “we had ambitious goals,” referring to his colleague, TPF4Y Director of Operations Brei Cecil-Satchwell. “At that time, Indiana had 70 elementary school robotics teams. We wanted to start 300 teams our first year.”

The foundation raised enough funds to award 300 grants for equipment costs that first year. Each grant paid for the initial robot kit, about $329, plus the extra parts add-on kit for about $150, the robot “field” where the competition challenges take place for about $300, and the cost to register for competitions at $150. All the equipment covered by a TPF4Y grant is reusable from year to year.

The robotics team start-up grants did not cover the game elements set, which changes each year and is specific to the competition challenge established by REC Foundation, the organizer or “host” of VEX Robotics competitions worldwide.

“The game elements set was kind of their skin in the game, so they felt ownership and felt invested,” Giltner said. A game elements set runs about $120.

How the Indiana State Robotics Initiative Is Unique

The nod to Ballard’s perspective on the barriers schools face showed up in TPF4Y’s statewide strategy to provide not just equipment funds but also educator training and educator support — they intentionally built an environment of “sharing and helping” among teams and coaches, Giltner said. This turned out to be key to the program’s explosive growth.

Resources for Starting a K–12 Robotics Program

“We created a network for teachers in the program through a private FB group — just for elementary robotics coaches — and they really began to support each other, sharing and collaborating and asking questions,” he recounted. “Robotics is not like athletics where coaches don’t share playbooks. We created a warm, inviting, collaborative environment among the robotics coaches in Indiana.”

In the VEX Robotics competitions, Giltner explained, each team is paired with a team from a different school and region.

“You don’t know who you’ll be paired with till you get to the competition; at state competition you’ve got students from urban and rural schools coming together and at the international championship, you’ve got people from different parts of world speaking different languages — and they have to quickly how to communicate and play with one another and work together to advance their robot in the competition,” he said.

“In athletics, you don’t play with other teams, you’re there to beat them. In robotics, you want to work together with another team because your points total together.”

The foundation’s strategy called for them to focus on helping elementary schools get into robotics the first two years, then expand their focus to middle schools for two years, and then high schools, Giltner said.

The first year, TPF4Y expected to see 300 new elementary school teams start up because it had awarded that many grants. What happened next exceeded their highest hopes.

“It grew much faster than we expected because we didn’t realize schools that used a grant to start their first team were seeing a lot more students interested than one team can handle,” Giltner said. “One robotics kit allows for six to eight students to actively participate and get their hands on the robot. But a lot of schools were buying a second kit and forming a second team. We had some schools the first year that ended up buying nine kits and forming 10 teams their first year!”

The first year of the Indiana State Robotics Initiative resulted in the launch of 518 new elementary school robotics teams — more than most states have today. The second year saw that total nearly double, with 920 elementary school robotics teams across Indiana.

In 2018–19, the initiative expanded its focus to the middle school level; there were 123 middle school teams already operating at that time, Giltner said. By the end of the school year, there were 451.

By early 2020, Indiana boasted over 2,100 K–12 robotics teams — a 430% increase in less than four years.

COVID-19 put a damper on the state robotics initiative’s push to expand in high schools, but efforts continue, and in 2021–22, Indiana schools fielded 1,500 robotics teams, according to TPF4Y’s annual report. More than 2,000 teams are expected to participate this school year.

Giltner believes the start-up funding helped grow the program, but the built-in support network for educators has had the biggest impact.

And for schools outside of Indiana, there is a network of support resources and start-up funding: the REC Foundation, which continues growing and is now rolling out new drone competition programs as well.

“The REC Foundation is like NFL of school robotics; they have regional support managers who can support new teams and are usually aware of grant funds available in each state,” Giltner said. “What they don’t do is train the educators to be team coaches. We’ve seen firsthand the importance of that element: getting teachers into the right mindset on why they should be a robotics coach, and why robotics is so transformational.

“This is not about building robots, and it is not about competing — it’s about transforming students’ way of thinking, teaching them to be better problem-solvers and troubleshooters,” he said. “A lot of recruiters will tell you the best skill transferable to any field is knowing how to be a problem-solver, how to overcome failure, how to collaborate to solve a problem. In robotics, that problem is how to fix their robot to complete the challenge and hopefully win the competition. But it’s much bigger than the robot or the competition.”