A newly unveiled STEM Education Center at the Universities Space Research Association (USRA), in Columbia, will provide a dedicated space for regional students to explore robotics and prepare for robotics competitions.

The 18,000-square-foot facility is the result of collaboration between USRA and two other nonprofit organizations, STEMaction, of Glenwood, and Maryland FIRST. The Education Center houses four practice areas and includes a large robotics practice field that is on loan from the NASA Robotics Alliance Project.

“This partnership is a perfect fit for our STEM Workforce Development mission,” said USRA President and CEO Jeffery Isaacson, during his organization’s ribbon-cutting ceremony in December.

Historically, USRA has contributed to developing the high tech workforce by managing more than 1,500 technical internships across the country for customers that include NASA, the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Department of Energy.

“Our collaboration with STEMaction represents our first activity as part of a broader K–12 STEM initiative,” Isaacson said. “We’re working to establish other partnerships in STEM, regionally and perhaps nationally, in the very near future.”

Mutual Support

Overseen by 105 major research institutions, USRA was founded in 1969 and operates a variety of scientific research institutes across the country on behalf of NASA, the National Science Foundation, the DoD and other partners. The organization conducts research in astronomy, earth science, space biomedicine, space technology and computer science.

Having outgrown the small building it occupied in Columbia, USRA might have moved to a different state two years ago — had it not been for assistance from the Howard County Economic Development Authority (HCEDA) in acquiring its current 90,000-square-foot headquarters building in Columbia Gateway Business Park.

“[Keeping USRA in the county] was very rewarding, but a couple of years later [we] get to see the true impact of that,” said HCEDA CEO Larry Twele. “This is a showcase example of what it means to have a company that is committed to the county, provides good jobs and benefits the county in its commitment to workforce development and the development of talent. It’s truly what economic development is about, providing those opportunities.”

“The world is changing,” said Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman, who participated in the ribbon cutting ceremony to open the facility. “We need to have strong leadership, so I’m excited that USRA and STEMaction are doing this to help our young people be in the position they need to be in in order for us to compete in the world.”

Interest Outpacing Space

Bill Duncan, executive director of STEMaction and regional director of Maryland FIRST, credited Leadership Howard County with making the introductions that led to the partnership.

Moving beyond simply running programs and activities to a dream of physical locations built around individual teams or clusters of teams was “something in the distant future until this summer, when we were introduced to USRA,” he said. “They had the space and an interest to extend K–12 outreach and our objectives aligned perfectly.”

Maryland FIRST operates events and competitions in four program tracks: the FIRST Robotics Competition, the FIRST Tech Challenge, the FIRST LEGO League and the Junior FIRST LEGO League.

Now entering its fourth year, the STEMaction program currently includes more than 700 FIRST teams across Maryland, reaching more than 6,000 students and incorporating more than 2,000 adult mentors. In Howard County alone, more than 1,000 students are involved with more than 120 teams fielded by public and private schools, clubs, neighborhood groups and home schools.

“We’ve got a great community of folks, but we haven’t really ever had a home, and many teams need a place to practice or hold meetings,” Duncan said. “We think we’re probably one of the first physical locations in the country that has full practice fields and facilities for all four of the FIRST programs. We’ve got something unique.”

Next Stop: Mars

NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman circulated among robotics demonstrations conducted by middle school and high school robotics teams from throughout the Baltimore-Washington region at the ceremony. She told students that NASA would rely on them to help meet the challenge of returning to Earth-Moon orbit by the 2020s and transporting the first human explorers to Mars in the 2030s.

“You don’t have to be the best person in physics or math,” she said. “If you love to design and build and move that robot around and be hands on, that’s an engineer. Go with your passion.”

Newman stressed that the nation still has a long way to go, considering that no female students took the advanced placement computer science test in Mississippi or Montana last year. Moreover, she said, no African-Americans took the test in 11 states and no Latinos took the test in eight states.

“We need to change that,” she said. “Things are much better in Maryland because of the hard work and investment like the folks here are doing. The solution isn’t rocket science, it’s getting young folks excited, opening up opportunities and getting some mentoring.”

For the short term, Duncan said, the STEM Education Center will support FIRST activities with practice and meeting space, with the goal of hosting the first sanctioned FIRST LEGO qualifiers and FIRST Tech Challenge competitions later this year.

“We want to make this a hub for STEM activities throughout the Baltimore Washington Corridor and the state,” Duncan said. “We also want to build in with partners and other programs and other activities that complement and leverage each other. How and exactly where this evolves is something that’s going to be a community effort.”