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Innovation Station training STEM leaders of tomorrow

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By Melanie Lekocevic

Capital Region Independent Media

FIRST Lego League competitors show how it’s done. Melanie Lekocevic/Capital Region Independent Media

RAVENA — Tomorrow’s leaders in the science and technology fields are being trained right now, and the local community is working to give its kids a head start.

A group of parents and businesses have teamed up to create the Innovation Station, a technology program that will be run out of the basement of the Congregational Christian Church and already has 60 kids signed up to participate.

“The Innovation Station is a community-based STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and robotics center that we kicked off this spring,” said engineer Rick Robertson, who along with his wife Kate founded the area’s original FIRST Lego League team. “We got together a group of interested folks in the community, formed a board of directors, established ourselves as a not-for-profit, and over the last several months have been in the process of finding a space.”

The Innovation Station will be run out of a dedicated space in the church’s basement and in addition to 60 participating students, has 25 coaches from around the community. The group teamed up with the RCS Community Business Association at Rail to River Brewing last Tuesday to host an informational meeting for business leaders and the community.

“Tonight we wanted to reach out to the community,” Robertson said. “We are looking for sponsors and funding sources to continue to build out on the vision that we have for the Innovation Station.”

Participants at the Innovation Station’s informational meeting practice with Legos. Pictured, right, is Dr. Brian Bailey, superintendent of the RCS Central School District and a member of the group’s board of directors. Melanie Lekocevic/Capital Region Independent Media

The program will begin this fall with the FIRST Lego League, which gives kids a chance to participate in robotics and computer programming.

“FIRST won’t be the only thing that we do — it will be our fall programming into the winter, and then in the spring and summer we will have other programs,” Robertson said.

Other competitive activities could include the Formula H hydrogen car program, or Girls Who Code, which gives girls a chance to explore computer programming, among others.

“There is a range of competitive engineering and science-based programs that we will have active participation with,” Robertson said. “It will all be under the umbrella of the Innovation Station.”

The group’s founders are working to complete the refurbishing and upgrading of the church’s space for its programs and will soon launch the new season of FIRST Lego League. The program is available to kids in pre-kindergarten through high school, with the younger students meeting at the RCS Community Library and those ages 6 and up meeting at the Innovation Station.

“We have 13 teams that are participating in this season of FIRST Lego League and we couldn’t be happier to see the interest from the community,” Robertson said.

The group is in the process of raising funds for the program, which needs to purchase big-ticket items like computers, robots and desks, and is still upgrading its space at the church.

“We have had a great response from local businesses. Plug Power and Holcim right now are our two founding sponsors,” Robertson said. “We have companies that are sponsoring teams, companies that are donating materials to retrofit and upgrade the building. It is entirely donation based.”

The Innovation Station offers children the chance to participate in a unique activity outside the school day.

“We have Little League baseball, Pop Warner football, we have soccer and basketball — the list goes on and on — but we don’t have those types of extracurricular activities as it relates to science and engineering and computer programming, so we thought there was a need and an opportunity to fill that gap,” he said. “Based on just a couple of months of effort and seeing the responses that we have had, it is clear that there was a gap and we are excited about filling it.”

The long-term vision for the Innovation Station is to have its own stand-alone facility that is dedicated to extracurricular STEM activities year-round.

“There are some big-dollar figures associated with that and we think that if we start crawling here, then we will walk and then run towards our longer-term vision,” Robertson said.

The FIRST Lego League has been run out of Robertson’s garage for 10 years and has seen its share of success. The team traveled to Arkansas last year for a national competition and has won numerous regional contests. One FIRST alumni is turning his extracurricular activities in Ravena into a career.

“We’ve got a sophomore in college who started in FIRST Lego League when he was 9 and is now a mechanical engineering student at RPI,” Robertson said. “That’s what these programs are for.”

Dr. Brian Bailey, superintendent of the RCS Central School District, is a member of the Innovation Station’s board of directors and said the program will give young people another local opportunity.

“Our community is blessed with so many athletic opportunities for our students,” Bailey said. “When we talked about this conceptually, we likened it to Pee Wee football or travel soccer or baseball teams… this is basically our traveling robotics team.”

At Rail to River Brewing on Tuesday, families and business owners turned out to learn about the program. The Wozniak family brought their daughter Willow, 10, all the way from Delmar.

“She is very interested in science and art and technology, so we thought this would be a good thing to check out,” said mom Stacy Wozniak. “We are looking at the robotics team and other things that she could do.”

Willow Wozniak, 10, of Delmar, checks out one of the displays at the Innovation Station’s program at Rail to River. Melanie Lekocevic/Capital Region Independent Media

Marlene McTigue, chair of the RCS Community Business Association’s board of directors, said the group is proud to support the project.

“Our mission is to be a catalyst for growth and prosperity in our community,” McTigue said. “The Innovation Station will be one of the only freestanding community STEM centers in the Capital District. This will not only give our kids a leg up in STEM disciplines, but it will also create a pipeline for our member businesses to a more skilled workforce.”

The program will also encourage girls to get involved to close the gender gap in these growing and expanding industries, she said.

“Programs that will be taught at the Innovation Station like Girls Who Code are helping to close the gender gap when it comes to the computer sciences,” McTigue said. “If you do the research, you’ll see that the sad truth of the matter is that women are losing ground in the computer sciences. In 1995, 37% of computer scientists were women; today, it’s only 24%. The Innovation Station can help to level the playing field and we are excited to be a part of that.”

Businesses and families check out the offerings for the Innovation Station. Melanie Lekocevic/Capital Region Independent Media
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