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21st Century Workforce Transformation: VEX Robotics

PHOTO CREDIT: VEX Robotics

At least five of our GSDC investors are actively involved in the VEX Robotics Program: Central McGowan, Coldspring, Granite Equity Partners, Park Industries and St. Cloud Technical and Community College – and we expect there are more. Robotics has become an extremely popular extracurricular program offered throughout K-12 schools in  Minnesota, and especially in our greater St. Cloud region.

According to the SCTCC web site,

“VEX is the largest and fastest growing Elementary, Middle and High School robotics program globally with more than 24,000 teams from 60 countries playing in over 1000 tournaments worldwide. The competition judges team ability to program, drive, and control a robot.

The VEX Robotics Design System offers students an exciting platform for learning about areas rich with career opportunities spanning science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Beyond science and engineering principles, a VEX Robotics project encourages teamwork, leadership, and problem solving among groups.”

To learn more about VEX and its impact on area businesses, we interviewed Greg Flint, President/COO of Coldspring and Aaron Barker, Energy & Electronics Instructor at St. Cloud Technical and Community College and VEX MN State  Coordinator.

How did you first learn about VEX?

AB: Through a co-worker/friend of mine. He brought it to meeting and shared with me, and I thought it was a great idea. So he and I started it and the rest is history.

GF: As a boy scout, my son was involved with the first state tournament.  At that tournament, the realization of what this activity was and how it could be used to help solve our companies staffing needs was an eye opener.  Since that time, we’ve come to realize that it can do more than to provide a talent pipeline, it can have a positive impact on the vitality of local economies.

Describe your current involvement in the VEX program.

AB: VEX MN State Coordinator. Plan and organize all the events in central and southern Minnesota. I do help out in northern if needed. I also plan and organize the State Championship. Events include tournaments, camps, coach workshops, and event partner summit.

GF: My involvement is primarily as a cheerleader and enabler, with a heavy emphasis on enabler.  We try to be there when Aaron and the rest of the VEX team needs support to continue to allow the program to grow.

What is it about VEX that has inspired your involvement?

AB: Anyone can be in this. Does not matter what you enjoy, there is a place for everyone. I also love the collaboration, this is a competition, but the teams are helping others be successful at the competition, even if that means they lose a match.

GF: For us, it’s the platform that it gives us to engage with the future employees (who are in the schools today), the schools (who are nurturing and developing that future talent) and then their parents who are the gate keepers.  With this platform, we’ve been able to open doors to working with the kids to encourage them to consider pursuing a career in the STEM fields.  Then there are the gatekeepers, the parents and guardians who want nothing but the best for their children.  This exposes them to the good career opportunities that are available.  We’ve opened doors at the schools to pursue the various ways we could collaborate together to develop our future talent.

How does VEX contribute to career and workforce development?

AB: VEX is a vehicle that creates an interest in STEM, and at an early age. The are learning soft skills, along with the technical skills that they will need to have a successful career when they get older.

GF: It starts with awareness.  With that awareness, the kids are exposed to a number of potential fields or work that could provide a rewarding career and life.  With that awareness, our challenge is to then get them to engage in the development processes through the schools (middle, high and post-secondary).  Eventually landing them at good employers.  If we will think beyond the hard skills of robotics to consider the soft skills, we quickly realize that these soft skills are desired by nearly all employers.  For example, imagine the medical profession and the benefits that a nurse receives from that soft skill development.  Now replace the medical professional with financial or perhaps education and so on.

Describe the skills and abilities that are learned by students participating in VEX.

AB: Teamwork, critical thinking, problem solving, designing, programming, strategy, documentation, planning, the list goes on.

GF: At a basic level there are soft and hard skills.  To answer the question on what soft skills, Google “employability skills.”  That list is desired by all employers.  Then when thinking about the hard skills, the primary focus is around STEM or Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.  Each of those areas has a number of skills that the kids are exposed to and are subsequently developing.

Why should businesses get involved in VEX?

Business are in need of skilled labor, by being involved, business can help create a future workforce to meet their demanding shortage with skilled students from the VEX Program.

GF: The long view is to help to build a community that has the ability to realize it’s potential.  There is a lot of untapped potential in our society.  The STEM skills gap is the result of societies inability to close the gap.  Subsequently, currently, we refer to the skills gap as an awareness gap.  VEX provides us the opportunity to close that awareness gap and in doing so to help an organization to build the talent pipeline that they many are starving for.

How can businesses get involved in VEX?

AB: Donations, both financially and in-kind. VEX is completely ran from donations from the community. Volunteers is another way, these events require volunteers to run these events.

GF: To get started, become aware yourself.  Simply talk to those involved.  Attend a few tournaments.  Get the local organizations (school, 4H, Boy Scouts, Etc.) to start a team.  Support them with your time, treasure and talent.  Ultimately, get involved to help ensure that the overriding VEX infrastructure is capable of growing to become a self-sustaining organization.

Who should people contact if they want to know more?

AB: Aaron Barker, abarker@sctcc.edu

GF: Greg Flint, gflint@coldspringusa.com

Article C/O: Greater St. Cloud Development Corporation

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