For the first time in about seven years, Waco will no longer be home to a nationally-recognized robotics competition, school and competition officials said this week.
Losing the Heart of Texas Boosting Engineering, Science, and Technology, or BEST, Robotics competition; and the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, or FIRST, Robotics competition means school districts and students will have to travel farther and raise more money for events that put science, technology, engineering and math lessons to the test, school officials said.
“With the events not being in Waco, it means we will have to fundraise $2,000 to $3,000 more to be able to travel to events in other cities to pay for housing, travel and food,” Rapoport Academy STEM coordinator Clay Springer said. “It also means fewer students will experience the events because we just can’t take everyone. We are pretty bummed about not having the events here because there was definitely a pride factor of hometown events.”
Money was a factor in the events leaving, officials said.
“We’re certainly interested in getting one started in the area again,” BEST executive director Rosemary Mendel said. “These students all deserve our program. It’s very special because it’s free.”
The BEST competition had a hub in Waco for seven years operated by Texas State Technical College, Mendel said. It was one of 10 hubs in Texas, she said.
Attendance remained steady, but TSTC’s priorities shifted, she said.
TSTC shifted its funding for outreach to students in the area from the robotics competition to the Challenger Learning Center that opened last year, center director Trey Pearson said. The center lets student groups take a hands-on space mission simulation at a cost of about $450 for a two-hour session. It reaches more students and brings them onto campus, while the competition was held off-site, Pearson said.
Residents are exploring possible funding sources to get the hub started again, Mendel said.
The FIRST competition came to Waco last spring with the help of a startup grant, but organizers have been unable to find the money to keep it going, said Will Phipps, executive director of the Greater Waco Sports Commission.
The competition brought 40 teams to Waco ISD’s University High School and more than half a million dollars into the city, Phipps said. The sports commission helped bring the competition to Waco.
“They want to come back and do it again in Waco,” Phipps said. “The teams absolutely loved the setup here, but they need more help from the local business community, people who want to be involved in STEM and economic development.”
Phipps is working with FIRST officials to identify companies that want to be involved in bringing the competition back to Waco in 2019.
“I know we’ll have some smaller competitions … but the big ones, like the regional, big money ones, you know? It’s disappointing,” he said.
Until the competitions return, some students are taking advantage of the new Challenge center, including some junior high students in McGregor ISD. And members of the McGregor High School rocket program are planning to work at the center this year, Superintendent James Lenamon said.
McGregor competed in Waco’s BEST competition for six years, advancing to state three times, Lenamon said. His students also hope to compete as part of Waco ISD’s Greater Waco Advanced Manufacturing Academy team this year, he said.
GWAMA and University High School competed in the BEST Robotics competition, Waco ISD spokesperson Kyle DeBeer said. But without the local BEST competition, both campuses are in the process of creating teams to compete in FIRST robotics and have been talking with Midway ISD about joining a league it is sponsoring, DeBeer said.
Springer, the Rapoport Academy STEM coordinator, said his students will compete in the smaller competitions in the area, but he fears they will lose interest without the larger competitions.
“I’ve always noticed many students are just looking to get involved with something, whether it is sports, clubs, robotics, really anything. They want and need to be a part of a team,” Springer said. “The extra money becomes an issue with FIRST robotics events, which are already very very expensive to compete in, and I do not want to lose the students who would be getting into trouble elsewhere if they aren’t busy with our competition seasons.”