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High school robotics teams, including those in Waukesha, could get a financial boost from the state if a bill authored by a Pewaukee legislator becomes law.

Under the measure proposed by Rep. Adam Neylon (R-Pewaukee), a pilot program would be created to provide up to $500,000 of funding for high school robotics teams — up to $5,000 per team — to help cover costs such as competition fees, travel expenses and robotics kits.

The grant program, which would be administered by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, would include both public and private schools.

Neylon, whose 98th District includes in part the northern portion of the city of Waukesha, said he was compelled to pursue the measure after viewing a regional robotics competition at Hamilton High School in Sussex.

"I was just really impressed and fascinated with the abilities of some of these students," Neylon said. "As our technology advances and as things become more integrated, we're going to need a lot more students to close the skills gap and fill some of these positions in robotics."

Neylon talked about the skills gap during his Jan. 14 testimony to the Assembly Education Committee, citing a 2015 report by Deloitte Consulting that said in the next decade, nearly 31/2 million manufacturing jobs in the U.S. will need to be filled, and the skills gap — widening because of baby boomer retirements and economic expansion — is expected to result in 2 million of those jobs going unfilled.

"If we're really serious about closing the skills gap and training people in science, technology, engineering and math, we thought that robotics would be a great place to help," Neylon said.

Funding robotics

Neighboring states such as Minnesota and Indiana have already allocated state resources toward high school robotics, Neylon said. But that's not the case in Wisconsin.

Waukesha's robotics team, CORE 2062, which includes 50 high school students throughout the district, budgets about $30,000 each year. Wendy Copeland, one of Waukesha's 16 mentors, said the team is funded through a combination of fundraisers and student fees. A typical student on CORE pays about $400 annually to be on the team, Copeland said. The rest of the team's budget is funded through local business support.

But with entry fees for a single competition reaching $5,000, the costs can add up quickly. Travel expenses are paid out-of-pocket, Copeland said.

"Funds like the proposed $5,000 would go a long way to helping ensure that CORE can continue providing the strong educational and inspiring STEM experience for students," Copeland said.

Getting students involved

Copeland added Neylon's proposed bill could be a great springboard to help school districts that currently don't have a robotics program get one started.

New Hampshire-based FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) puts on many of the robotics tournaments that local high schools such as Arrowhead, Hamilton and the Waukesha schools participate in.

Neylon said we often hear about how robots are taking people's jobs, but we don't hear about the flip side: how there's a whole new industry of robotic technicians emerging.

"And almost every single manufacturing facility needs robotic technicians, and these are careers that don't require a four-year education," Neylon said.

Under the measure, the pilot program would be evaluated after one year to determine how much money was spent, what it was used for and whether it would be justified for the program to continue.

One thing going for the bill — approved by the Assembly's Education Committee on Thursday, Jan. 28 — is bipartisan support, Neylon said.

Working against it is time. The Senate has almost the same timeline as the Assembly but fewer people, Neylon said, so it's not clear whether the measure will get an up-or-down vote before the end of the current legislative session.

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