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School Robotics World Championship in Louisville May Boost Tech Interest For Local Students

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Daniel McMillen knows his way around a robot.McMillen is just 16, but he has already designed and fine-tuned several robots as a member of the Central Hardin High School VEX Robotics team. It's no team of mere tinkerers—they're all savvy in robotics engineering. The team is the reigning Kentucky state VEX Robotics competition champion and earlier this year placed third in the VEX Robotics World Championships in Anaheim, California.They plan to return to the World Championships in 2015, and they wouldn't have to travel across the country. In April, the VEX Robotics World Championship competition will be in Louisville, organizers, city officials and state convention leaders announced Thursday.“It’s going to be really interesting,” McMillen said. “This year there are so many things that are going to be done, there are so many possibilities that people are going to bring to this competition.”

McMillen, along with Jason Neagle, an engineering teacher at Central Hardin High School, said the robots that will be at the competition will be highly sophisticated machines.“There is always a new idea that no one has ever thought of,” Neagle said. The competition will bring more than 15,000 people from 25 countries to Louisville’s Kentucky Exposition Center in mid-April, said Rip Rippetoe, president of the Kentucky State Fair Board, which oversees the expo center.“It’s going to put us on the map in regards to robotics,” Rippetoe said.Louisville is expected to get near $5 million in economic impact from the event, he added.But for McMillen and Neagle, the competition is about more than boosting the local economy—it’s about boosting interest in an area of education that is often underrepresented in Kentucky.Neagle said the competition is great way to increase student engagement in fields related to science, technology, engineering and math—or STEM.“It inspires them,” he said.  “It’s hard to get a student interested in gear ratios or mechanical advantage or programming, but when they apply it to competitions like this—where they are fighting somebody from another team in a competition—it really engages them and they’re going to try to learn.”And as WFPL has previously reported, getting students engaged at an early age, when they still have time to acquire basic skills necessary to succeed in those fields, is important in fostering a population interested in pursuing a college education in STEM-related fields.Kentucky ranks44th in the U.S. for the number of students who earn bachelor’s degrees in STEM related fields. Earlier: Kentucky Is Improving in Meeting Some Education Goals, Report SaysNorthrop Grumman Foundation President Sandra Evers-Manly said the competition is a great tool to increase interest in STEM education and STEM-related careers. The foundation works to do just that—expand interest in STEM around the globe.“As more and more students get a chance to experience VEX Robotics, we make progress in our efforts to expand global interest in STEM,” Evers-Manly said.For McMillen, a junior in high school, working with the robotics team at his school and participating in the competitions has opened a door to a satisfying career possibility.“People at these competitions are looking for the next big thing, the future engineer,” he said.  “This can really open up an engineer career path.”McMillen said after he graduates high school he will look to keep his skills close to home and pursue an engineering degree at the University of Louisville or Murray State University.“In state,” he said.  “Definitely.”

Jacob Ryan joined LPM in 2014. Ryan is originally from Eddyville, Kentucky. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.