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Virginia Students Promote STEM Initiatives in Underserved Communities

Alison Palmer (L) and Princess Culpepper (R) sought permission to speak to members of the Virginia General Assembly about the need for more STEM opportunities in underserved communities.

Speaking from the student perspective, two Richmond area high school juniors have called on Virginia lawmakers to expand opportunities for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) initiatives in underserved communities.

Princess Culpepper from Richmond’s Thomas Jefferson H.S. and Alison Palmer from Deep Run H.S. in Henrico made their case before the General Assembly’s Joint Commission on Technology and Science (JCOTS) on October 22nd.

“Not every school has the connections to enlist sponsors,” explained Palmer, who said some teams also struggle to find mentors and supporters who are so important to a successful robotics program.

“We’re limited by the space where we build and test our robots,” said Culpepper. TJ Robotics relies on classroom space, which is inaccessible outside of regular school hours. “We also have financial challenges,” added Culpepper.

Palmer and Culpepper are members of FIRST Robotics Competition teams. FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is a non-profit organization dedicated to encouraging young people to study STEM subjects and seek careers in technology fields. FIRST is supported by grants and sponsorships and organizes age-appropriate robotics contests for students in grades K-12.

“There aren’t many kids in my neighborhood who are interested in science or math,” said Culpepper, adding that being on a FIRST robotics team “opened my eyes” about pursuing a career in engineering. “This is a path to a good future,” she said.

Culpepper and Palmer told the legislative panel that only half of Virginia’s high schools and fewer than a third of elementary and middle schools have FIRST robotics teams.

“We’d like to see these teams across the board in Virginia,” said Palmer. She urged lawmakers to consider creating a grant program to support robotics teams in less-affluent areas of Virginia, suggesting $250,000 as a starting figure. She also asked the state to provide money for stipends for robotics team coaches. Palmer noted many athletic coaches receive additional compensation for their extra duties.

Commission Chairman, Del. Thomas Rust, a civil engineer, praised Palmer and Culpepper for their presentation and noted the success of FIRST robotics in encouraging young women into the engineering fields.

Rust did not offer any encouragement on the funding requests. Virginia faces a $2.4 billion state budget shortfall over the next couple of years.

Article and photos by Jim Babb/VirginiaFIRST