Indiana recognizes the value of exposing students to robotics in their elementary school education: A statewide grant program will give students the opportunity to learn about robotics both inside and outside the classroom.

Over the next two years, the Indiana Department of Workforce Development will put $300,000 in General Assembly career and technical education funds toward the endeavor in the heavy manufacturing state. And the department, along with a number of organizations — including the TechPoint Foundation for Youth, the Robotics Education and Competition Foundation (REC), VEX Robotics, Project Lead the Way and NASA — are starting more robotics competitions in Indiana, and exposing students to robotics in their classes.

The reason? Indiana needs more skilled workers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), and robotics' competitions provide a great opportunity for students to learn teamwork and collaboration skills that will be useful in their future careers, said Dennis Wimer, associate chief operating officer at the Indiana Department of Workforce Development.

"It's a fun environment," Wimer said. "It is something that allows trial and error and allows that repetitive process of trying something, testing it out and then going back to the drawing board and redoing it." 

For the 2016-17 school year, 400 elementary schools across the state will be able to apply for grants that will cover teacher training, robotics kits, team registration fees for competitions and educational materials for the classroom. The next year, 400 schools will be able to apply for grants as well, and organizers plan to expand their efforts to middle and high school in subsequent years.

This means that at a young age, students from a variety of backgrounds will be able to try robotics at an entry level to see if they like it, just as they do with sports, Wimer said. Elementary school students may be more open to robotics because they're still figuring out what they're interested in, whereas middle and high school students tend to specialize in activities they're already interested in.

Elementary school students come up with creative ideas like building a flying robot and aren't afraid to share them, said George Giltner, the new statewide robotics director at the TechPoint Youth Foundation, who will be training teachers as part of this grant. If they were in high school, they may not have shared their idea because they could be worried about what their peers think. When competition time comes, they'll see whether their robots fail or succeed and have the opportunity to re-engineer their robots so they work better in the next phase of the competition.

"The point of this program is not to get students to become robot engineers; it's for them to learn how to problem solve and troubleshoot," said Giltner, who taught for 10 years and coached high school robotics teams.

This new initiative that launched in April is designed to build upon efforts that began in Indianapolis with former Mayor Gregory A. Ballard in 2013. He set a goal for every school in Indianapolis to participate in robotics competitions so students could learn and apply STEM skills. More than 160 teams competed in January's fourth-annual IndyVRC, and the city covered the event registration fees, kits and parts for each team.

For the statewide initiative, the $150,000-a-year General Assembly funds provided the seed money that pulled in other organizations, covered a quarter of the robotics kit budget and paid for the operating budget, which allowed the TechPoint Youth Foundation to hire Giltner, as well as a grant and funding manager. The foundation is still looking for donors to cover the remaining three-quarters of the budget for the first 400 kits.

Project Lead the Way is providing additional activities in the kits for teachers to use in the classroom. The REC Foundation is adding staff in the state to expand robotics competitions and offering discounts on suped-up robotics kits. And NASA will fund regional high school robotics teams so they can mentor elementary students in robotics.

On the education front, Giltner will be helping teachers learn how to build robots, compete with them and teach students with them. That way, they'll be comfortable with the technology and not afraid to include robotics in their lessons so that more students will learn about robotics.

"By bringing it in the classroom and having all the students in the class participate in a robotics activity," Giltner said, "we're hoping to cast a larger net."