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Jobs of Tomorrow – Machine Learning – The Sierra Nevada Ally

This report is part of a series reports by The Sierra Nevada Ally: Nevada Formulates Innovative Skills Training Programs for a 21st Century Workforce, produced in collaboration with the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization that supports rigorous reporting on how communities respond to problems.
As a coach, Rachel Salas knew one of her team’s players was struggling.

Head Coach Rachel Salas is also Dr. Rachel Salas, associate professor of literacy and director of the Center for Learning and Literacy at the University of Nevada Reno’s college of education. Her team is one of dozens of K-12 competitive robotics teams in northern Nevada belonging to the international FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) League. This year, the Wolf Pack Bots were winners of the statewide championship, and Dr. Salas was given the Coach/Mentor Award.

“[A student] had a speech impediment—a severe learning disability,” Salas said. “He was an English learner and just was being bullied at school, and I was trying to figure out ways to make him realize how smart he was and the strengths that he had and the qualities that he had.”

One day, instead of telling Salas, “I’m a failure,” the boy started saying, “I’m a leader.”

The team that gave him the confidence to lead is the Wolf Pack Bots, and the competition is the yearly Nevada FIRST LEGO League Challenge. 

2019 scrimmage at the Boys & Girls Club in 2019 – photo: courtesy of Rachel Salas

A Tesla-funded Robotics Facility

Competitive robotics teams like the Wolf Pack Bots are what UNR, Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada (EDAWN), and tech giant Tesla had in mind when, in January, they announced a partnership to develop a new K-12 robotics facility in downtown Reno. 

To give 28 local teams a place to meet, plan, and fabricate their robots, Tesla put up the funding to transform the old Southside School in downtown Reno on the corner of Liberty and Sinclair.

Tesla’s efforts are part of the company’s pledge to invest $37.5 million in local K-12 education. While the facility was originally slated to open in spring, a few renovation delays have delayed the opening until later this year.

The space is being designed in conjunction with the Makerspace at the Innevation Center—the UNR-owned community engineering and media resource next to the Terry Lee Wells Nevada Discovery Museum. Organizers hope the new workshop’s larger size and regular hours can accommodate multiple teams at once, providing both a level playing field for low-income students and a gathering place for members of the growing robotics community.

“What we found with a lot of the robotics teams is they really need a place to practice,”  said Daniel Smith, the Makerspace specialist at the Innevation Center. Smith is one of the managers of the existing Makerspace, and often helps robotics teams manage their practice time. He will also help to manage the new robotics facility when it is completed.

“Most of them are afterschool programs, so they kind of have facilities with their schools with computers and a place to do their build, but there’s not a community area where they can come and really test the robot on the full field,” Smith said. “The biggest resource I think we can offer is being that community hub, where everybody can come and connect and get some feedback before the competition and see what else is going on in the robotics community.”

Small robot named Wolfy, the Wolf Pack Bots team’s 2020 RePlay EV3 – photo: courtesy of Rachel Salas

Student teams generally compete in one of two privately owned leagues: FIRST and Vex. 

“K through 8 generally sticks to LEGO robotics,” said Salas. “And then they (K-8) have to do, like, research components on solving real-world problems and how the robots can interact with that. And then on the opposite end of the spectrum, you have [high school] teams where they have the huge robotics field, and they’re building incredibly elaborate machines. They’re really impressive.”

Apart from the Wolf Pack Bots, The Innevation Center also hosts a FIRST Robotics Competition at the high school level, which is supported by UNR and Tesla. Tesla is one of the founding partners of Nevada Robotics—a statewide organization that trains teachers in robotics and funds local teams. 

Educating Nevada’s Tech Force

Nevada Robotics puts the statewide number of student robotics teams at 702—a 162 percent increase over the past five years. To local business consortium EDAWN, increased access to student robotics teams and other tech programs is part of the bigger picture of what the next generation of northern Nevada industry might look like.

When Tesla first selected Reno as the site for its Gigafactory in 2014, EDAWN began fielding calls from other businesses looking to become part of the electric car maker’s supply chain. Since then, Tesla has become one of the area’s largest employers, either directly or tangentially, and Nancy McCormick, vice president of business retention, expansion & workforce at EDAWN believes that more tech industry jobs and companies will continue to follow in its wake.

According to labor market data analytics company Emsi, 410 new software developer and quality assurance tester positions came to Washoe County from 2014 to 2019, with an additional 348 jobs are projected to be added over the next five years—outpacing the national tech industry growth rate of 32.2 percent by almost double.

Taking advantage of high-paying jobs in this new sector requires workers fluent in applied technologies and—just like being fluent in a new language—EDAWN, Tesla and UNR believe it’s best to start exposing young students to the new technologies as early as possible. 

“We’re meeting with these companies, we’re hearing about what they need in terms of a workforce,” said McCormick. “We just have a vested interest in making sure that we’re building that pipeline of the future.”

Core Values event 2019 qualifier – photo courtesy of Rachel Salas

EDAWN sees student robotics competitions as a viable first step in that pipeline, as the competition framework is easily adaptable to an afterschool format and applies real-world engineering and programming skills. Plus, it feeds a preexisting interest that children may already have—simply put: robots are cool. 

So cool, in fact, that UNR hopes students develop a lifelong interest in the field. EDAWN supports student robotics and believes strongly in the future of tech from a market-driven standpoint. UNR has spent millions over the past few years increasing its stake in the tech research field.

Last year, UNR opened its new 100,000-square-foot, $91 million, William N. Pennington Engineering Building. And while the College of Engineering has no formal relationship to student robotics as of yet, the goal is to see the robotics competitors of today become the researchers of the future.

The current 2021 Wolf Pack Bots Team, holding up the books donated to Long Beach book drive for migrant children – photo: courtesy of Rachel Salas

“I’ve been in education 30 years,” said Dr. Mridul Gautam, vice president for research and innovation and a professor of mechanical engineering at UNR. “If you have somebody (a young student) who’s been trained in robotics … and they have an interest in programming, and they’re spending a few hours after school doing that, and they’re there on a Saturday and Sunday, it’s very likely they’ll go to a college program where they would take those courses.”

Dr. Gautam said that K-12 robotics competitions are a good way for young students to learn the interplay between different sciences—electrical engineering and mechanical design, for example—and identify areas of specialty. They’re likely to learn about when it’s useful for specialties to overlap, too. 

“They may end up in financial technology at the end of the day. They may end up developing codes for predicting climate change—large datalogical code,” Dr. Gautam said.

He believes that the new K-12 robotics center at Southside Studio will be well situated to serve low-income students, who might lack the resources for wide-scale scientific exposure otherwise. He can imagine student robotics one day becoming as commonplace as school soccer teams, with parents as referees and coaches.

Dr. Salas has a similar outlook on the future reach of robotics education. “It’s not just getting into programming,” she said. “It’s not just building robots. It’s not just designing something with artificial intelligence. … My goal is truly just to open doors, open doors, open doors, as much as I possibly can.”

Matt Bieker is an award-winning photojournalist and native of Reno. He received his degree in Journalism from the University of Nevada Reno in 2014, and currently covers arts & entertainment, and community development in his hometown.  Support his work for the Ally here.

Top photo credit: Large robot shared with the WolfPack Bots 2019 when Scott Duncan came to talk to the team about coding – photo: Scott Duncan