The Columbia-based Universities Space Research Association (USRA) has announced the integration of the nonprofit STEMaction Inc., of Glenwood, into its operations. Thus, the newly-created USRA STEMaction Center will amalgamate several programs under its umbrella, including programs that were previously under STEMaction.

With the acquisition, USRA has expanded its range of activities to help develop the next-generation science and technology workforce through K–12 Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) programs.

“We are committed to growing USRA’s role as an innovation hub, hosting an expanding array of inspiring and accessible STEM workforce development programs,” said USRA President and CEO Jeff Isaacson. “By building on the great successes of STEMaction and its many dedicated volunteers, USRA hopes to foster a thriving technical workforce for our region and country.”

Founded by Bill Duncan in 2009, the STEMaction program has been an important partner for the Maryland FIRST program, which operates events and competitions in four robotic program tracks serving the K–12 student community: the FIRST Robotics Competition, the FIRST Tech Challenge, the FIRST LEGO League and the Junior FIRST LEGO League.

Under Duncan’s guiding hand, the STEMaction program grew to include more than 700 FIRST teams across Maryland, reaching more than 6,000 students and incorporating more than 2,000 mentors. In Howard County alone, more than 1,000 students were involved, with more than 120 teams fielded by public and private schools, clubs, neighborhood groups and home schools.

Continuing Legacy

Since 1969, STEM activities have been a part of USRA’s mission. In addition to advancing space and aeronautics-related sciences and exploration through innovative research and development, USRA has also offered a range of learning opportunities for students, educators and the general public, and has recently ushered in new education programs focused on K–12 learning.

The incorporation of STEMaction is not only a perfect fit, it’s also the fulfillment of Duncan’s desire to hand off the program he built to a partner willing to advance its mission.

“For me, it was a combination of succession and putting these programs on a platform that could provide a more stable growth path for the future,” said Duncan. “I plan to stay involved with STEMaction in a senior adviser capacity, but my intention is to wind down my level of active involvement.”

By all indications the level of involvement is demanding. “The number of students we serve has more than doubled over the last five years,” Duncan said, leading to the establishment of the Maryland STEM Festival, which celebrates its third anniversary in November.

“We also launched the inaugural Maryland Tech Invitational, which took place on June 24 and 25,” he said, a new off-season robotics tournament. “It brings together the best teams from across the country to compete in a showdown after the season has ended.”

The inaugural competition, hosted by The Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, drew teams from 10 different states and a dozen from across Maryland.

Beneficial Partner

USRA’s involvement with STEMaction began in 2016 when Leadership Howard County President and CEO Stacie Hunt introduced USRA’s Vice President for Corporate Strategy and Development Vince DeFrancisci (Class of 2016) to Duncan.

“STEMaction was looking for a home for kids to build, practice and prepare for competitions,” DeFrancisci said, which led to the dedication of an 18,000-square-foot facility on USRA property for that purpose.

Now renamed the USRA STEMaction Center, the facility houses four practice areas and includes a large robotics practice field that is on loan from the NASA Robotics Alliance Project.

“The result is that STEMaction will dissolve its status as a 501(c)(3) organization, and USRA will assume all responsibility for its programs,” DeFrancisci said. “We are now affiliates in Maryland for the FIRST Tech Challenge and the FIRST Lego League Junior Program.”

USRA will continue to offer robotics programs at the center.
“One of our goals is to build a concept called The Garage,” DeFrancisci said, a combination machine shop and design space where middle school and high school students can do hands-on work designing objects like CubeSats, drones and other trendy technologies that have captured the imaginations of young inventors and innovators. “They will have the chance to work on the fabrication right here.”

USRA’s involvement will also free up STEMaction’s volunteers from their side roles as fiscal agents, which required them to pursue sponsorships and donations as well as make payments to support the program.

Expanding Scope

Looking ahead, DeFrancisci said USRA is looking to expand into other programs beyond those STEMaction is currently involved in.

“We could look into expanding in the District of Columbia or Virginia, and perhaps other states, three-to-five years down the road,” he said. “Right now, our strategic plan is to get the right resources and reach out to underserved areas, like Baltimore City, in the hope of attracting inner city students who don’t have the same opportunities to pursue these STEM interests as students in Howard County.”

The exact details are still a work in progress, but could take the form of multi-day camps, provided organizers find a way to iron out the challenges tied to transporting and feeding participants.

“We’d ultimately like to develop a four-to-six-week summer program around the robotics program that would take place in The Garage after we get it built,” DeFrancisci said.

One of the biggest keys to continued program success is securing the support of passionate volunteers, which hasn’t been difficult in a tech-saturated environment.

“Over the last year, I’ve worked with about 1,600 event volunteers, not including mentors, for the four different programs,” said STEMaction Volunteer Director Jenny Beatty. “That’s about 800 volunteers who are working with the 20 or so teams involved with the two different programs sponsored here at USRA.”
Those volunteers helped provide support at more than 50 events this year for both technical and non-engineering support, including program management, fundraising and making elevator pitches to potential donors and sponsors.
“We’ve received solid support from the Howard County Economic Development Authority, Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman and even people from the Goddard Space Flight Center,” Beatty said.

“We are excited to play a part in educating our community’s young people and to further Maryland’s attractiveness for innovation and future leadership in STEM,” DeFrancisci said.

“We’re extremely pleased that this integration is happening,” said Duncan. “I’m looking forward to the great things that I know will be coming out of this decision in the years to come.”