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EDC in Willmar, Minn., votes to help with startup funding for student robotics contest

WILLMAR -- Saying it will help boost youth interest in technical careers, the operating board of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission voted Thursday to help with the startup funding for a student robotics contest.

The EDC's $5,000 contribution will support the local introduction of the BEST (Boosting Engineering, Science and Technology) competition, which combines the hands-on experience of building a robot with sports-like teamwork and judging.

Local organizers say it's a way to get young people fired up about science, math and engineering -- and foster career choices that will keep them in west central Minnesota and increase the region's skilled workforce.

"These are the kinds of jobs we want," said Keith Bangasser, fin-ance director for the group that's organizing the local contest.

Local employers have said over and over that there's a need for technical, engineering, science and math skills in the workforce, said Jean Spaulding, assistant director of the Economic Development Commission.

"I think it's important that those are the core skills we're teaching to students," she said. "We're trying to prepare students for the jobs that we need in our communities."

While the robotics contest won't produce immediate results, the combination of early exposure and industry mentoring has been shown to be a strategy that works in the long term, Bangasser said.

The money from the Economic Development Commission comes from a $10,000 fund allocated in this year's budget for community contributions. About one-fourth of the fund has already been spent but there's enough left over to fulfill the BEST request, said Steve Renquist, executive director of the EDC.

Bangasser said the organizing committee is seeking grants and donations from other sources as well. He estimated the total startup costs at $30,000; costs in subsequent years will be considerably lower.

More than 800 schools and 12,000 students participated last year in the robotics contest. The local contest is the first in Minnesota.

Winners advance to regional and ultimately national championships.

At the start of the contest, student teams are given a supply of servo motors, joysticks, PVC piping and other essentials. They then have six weeks to design and build a robot to carry out a specific task -- for instance, picking up mechanical insects.

On the day of the contest, the teams deploy their robots for a panel of judges, who also will rate how well they do at documenting their engineering, creating a marketing plan and building a team exhibit.

The annual contest is launched in September, Bangasser said. The New London-Spicer School District has agreed to be the fiscal host.

Nearly a dozen school districts in Minnesota, including two metro schools, have already committed to participating in the contest, which is offered at no fee for the schools.

Ron Erpelding, chairman of the EDC joint operations board, was enthusiastic about bringing the contest to Kandiyohi County.

"There is nothing more critical" than fostering workforce development, he said.

"Here's a way to tap into kids early in the game so they can realize and visualize and touch and feel the kinds of jobs that are available in Kandiyohi County. ... Our future hinges on whether we have the right kind of workforce and whether we can attract them and keep them here."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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