Horry County Schools to help fund robotics competition in Myrtle Beach

vgrooms@thesunnews.comDecember 24, 2013 

The Horry County school board has agreed to put $20,000 toward the cost of next year’s Palmetto FIRST Robotics Competition to help keep the event in Myrtle Beach. Holding the competition locally saves each of Horry County Schools’ 12 high school robotics teams around $4,000 they would need to travel to events held elsewhere, with an added benefit of bringing people from other areas of the country and abroad to Myrtle Beach in the off-season.

The funds are a one-time contribution that will be reviewed from year to year, said Ben Hardee, HCS career and technology director. The competition doubled its size to 65 teams when it was held in Myrtle Beach for the first time in February, and it will return to the Myrtle Beach Convention Center from Feb. 27 to March 1.

Jack Moore with Palmetto Partners, the nonprofit group that sponsors the event, asked the board in November for an ongoing $20,000 commitment to help foot the bill for the event, which he said will cost about $137,000, and to keep the event in Myrtle Beach.

Board member Karen McIlrath, who was instrumental in getting the HCS robotics program off the ground, told the board that other organizations, such as the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, have asked what the district is contributing, and that “the dollars this school board invests in the program speaks very loudly to other entities.”

Putting on the regional competition is an expensive operation, said Camilla Hertwig, a founder of Palmetto Partners, which was formed to promote education and careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

“Every dime we have goes to the competition – it’s a labor of love,” Hertwig said.

A large part of the event funding goes to rent the convention center, and the group also contracts for an event manager, she said. The event has to have lights – a cost that rivals that of the arena – video screens (so kids working on their robots in the pits can see what’s going on), trophies and insurance, as well as EMS workers, who are paid to be on site all three days of the competition, although they’ve never had to be called into action, Hertwig said.

The group also provides a light breakfast and lunch for a cast of volunteers, who work from early morning to night to make the event possible, she said.

Keeping the event on the Grand Strand is a win for Myrtle Beach, because it brings more people to the area in the shoulder season, as well as for area high school teams that otherwise would have to raise travel funds in addition to what they need for extra robot materials.

“We estimate that the three-day tournament generates 5,600 room-nights, which translates into direct spending of approximately $1 million for the local economy,” said Mark Kruea, Myrtle Beach spokesman. “Last year’s event drew 3,000 spectators at the convention center during each of the two competition days.”

A request for funding is being considered by the city’s Accommodations Tax Advisory Committee, which will make a recommendation to City Council early next year, Kruea said.

FIRST Robotics is the largest organized competitive robotics program in the world, and regional winners move on to a national tournament. Conway’s Academy for Technology and Academics won last year and competed in the championship in St. Louis.

Twelve HCS teams will participate in next year’s event, with the addition of rookie teams from Aynor, HCS Early College and North Myrtle Beach high schools. Teams are given a game and a kit, and students have six weeks to design and build a robot that can perform the tasks of the game. The process encourages interest in STEM skills, while also teaching students how to solve problems and work together.

Teams will pick up their kits Jan. 4 and begin building their robots as soon as students return from winter break Jan. 6. All teams must finish and send in their robots by Feb. 19.

It is expensive for teams to register with FIRST, with established teams paying $5,000, and new teams paying $6,500, Hardee said. Last year, the district had nine teams, two of them rookie teams, and the new teams from Green Sea Floyds and Loris high schools received a NASA grant that covered their registration costs.

Hardee said $5,000 of the grant was unused by the teams but was used to pay the registration for the Academy’s team to go to St. Louis. The district received about $10,080 from the 1 percent for the Education Capital Improvement Sales Tax, and federal Perkins funds for Career and Technology Education paid for $35,000 of the registration fees. HCS teams self-reported spending $500 to $4,000 for tools and other items, Hardee said, and travel would have increased costs up to $4,000 more per team if the event had not been held locally.

Bucky Sellers, pre-engineering teacher at the Academy for the Arts, Science and Technology, also spearheaded the district’s robotics efforts and has been mentor to all the teams as the program has gotten off the ground. He said FIRST spends a lot on the team kits, which contain all the electronics and items such as computers, sensors and cameras.

“They give you everything you need for a basic robot,” Sellers said. “You could use just what comes in the kit to play the game.”

But teams do their own fundraising to purchase extra parts to bring their vision of a robot to life and to be competitive, but while most of the district’s teams are fairly new and relatively small, some teams enter the competition with as many as 75 to 100 members to share the various tasks.

“There are teams in the Northeast that have million-dollar shops from industry in the area and paid mentors who teach the kids how to do this,” said Sellers, who said it has been a challenge to find enough volunteer mentors for HCS teams. “The kids in Horry County don’t have that luxury.”

Contact VICKI GROOMS at 443-2401 or follow her at Twitter.com/TSN_VickiGrooms.

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