Duval County Public School Board Votes to Expand FIRST Robotics Programs

DuvalDuval County Public School Board vote expands FIRST LEGO League access for public school students to every Duval County middle school. 

On July 12, 2016 the Duval County Public School Board voted to expand FIRST LEGO League teams to all middle schools, an  increase from 36 to 50-plus schools. Local organization Renaissance Jax, the FIRST LEGO League Affiliate Partner for Northeast Florida, was awarded the contract.

The vote at the regularly scheduled school board meeting means a funding increase to $187,500 for 2016-2017 school year with a separate measure to fund additional teacher stipends for FIRST Robotics coaches. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and School Board Chair Chairman Ashley Smith-Juarez proposed the increase in funding.

FIRST LEGO League is an international robotics competition for students in grades four to eight and is part of the FIRST Progression of Programs. Local FIRST affiliate Renaissance Jax will oversee program growth, teacher training and resource allocation for the district’s robotics teams. Renaissance Jax founder Mark McCombs, a 27-year-old FIRST alumni, formed the 501(c)3 organization three years ago with the goal of building FIRST
teams in all Duval County schools by 2021.

“By promoting science education in a fun, competitive environment, we’re helping to train America’s next generation of scientists, engineers and skilled laborers, an area we’re currently fallen behind in as a country,” said McCombs. “We’re laying the groundwork for the future to make Northeast Florida a place companies will want to relocate to because we will have built a large talent pool in science and tech. To that end, my goal is more FIRST participants per capita in Northeast Florida than any other region in the country.”

This year, Renaissance Jax will support close to 2000 students across 20 counties through the FIRST Progression of Programs. Teams collaborate in their quest to design, build and program robots for competition. Through their summer camp programs in the last two years, we have introduced more than 300 students have been introduced to the world of competitive robotics. Renaissance Jax’s goal is to eventually support 300 robotics teams in Jacksonville alone. Last year, 38 new teams were created in DCPS schools towards that goal.

Following the vote to increase funding, Dr. Vitti spoke about why he believes building FIRST programs in DCPS schools is so important.

“It goes back to what I said tonight – the jobs of today are STEM-based. Students will not be prepared for that type of work unless they have exposure at early ages – and exposure means actually participating in hands on activities where they see mathematics and science come to life and the opportunity with FIRST LEGO League is to have kids involved at very young ages early on applying math and science in a collaborative way and in a  competitive way,” said Dr. Vitti in his remarks.

“We talk so much about sports about how it leads to the honing of skills, dedicating yourself to become a better athlete, and the same concept should be applied to academics and certainly this is the case when you look at FIRST LEGO League. I’m excited, I can see it, I saw a little bit of it last year, I can definitely see all of our kids participating and all of our schools, and it’s going to happen one of these days in the future.”

Key partnerships with local companies, colleges, universities and other nonprofits like Northeast Florida Regional STEM2 Hub all play key roles in building capacity for tech talent, retention, and business growth in the area. The STEM2 Hub has been critical to the success of Renaissance Jax by bringing resources, mentorship, and the right people together. The STEM2 Hub provides the essential, missing elements for Northeast Florida
to accelerate quickly the percent of Northeast Florida students choosing STEM2 careers.

The STEM2 Hub is led by Robert Copeland, an electrical engineer who holds a master’s degree from Stanford, taught algebra, calculus, and statistics at Stanton College Preparatory School. A former executive at AT&T, Copeland came out of retirement to teach for 13 years before taking his position at the STEM2 Hub.

For more information about Renaissance Jax and their mission and programming, please visit RenaissanceJax.org.

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