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Not Playing Games
STAR Academy Uses Robotics and Drones to Teach Valuable Skills That Lead to Jobs

October 2017

The STAR Academy taps into kids’ interest in robotics, drones, 3D printing and other technology to show a pathway for high-paying STEM jobs.

Every parent can relate to the terrible feeling when your child comes home disappointed because he or she did not make the team.

Tim Rhode, a Baltimore County parent of two children, experienced this firsthand two years ago when his son shared the news that he had applied to a team but was sadly not accepted. However, we are not talking about trying out for a high school lacrosse team … Rhode’s son did not land a spot in his middle school robotics club, and it was not because he was not talented enough – it was because too many kids had applied.

“That experience was an awakening for me. My kids play sports, and there are always plenty of resources and opportunities to find the right team to join. But this was not the case for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math),” says Rhode, a co-founder of the Baltimore Robotics Club.

Ed Mullin was also inspired by an experience involving his children. Mullin, chief technology officer at SC&H Group, accompanied his children to Walt Disney World where they were competing in a robotics world championship competition. “I saw all of these large corporations sponsoring the event, and it was my ‘Eureka’ moment. I knew there were so many job opportunities in STEM, but I was frustrated that there were not enough opportunities, so I started a non-profit – the Baltimore Robotics Center,” says Mullin, who serves as executive director. The Baltimore Robotics Center is a 501(c)(3) funded primarily by the Abell foundation focusing on robotics in Baltimore City Schools led by top-notch robotics coaches.

“I have known Ed for years through various business dealings, and together we wanted to start a recreational robotics league. We started with one school – St. Joseph School in Cockeysville – and within 10 months, we were working with over 500 students a week, all through word of mouth with no advertising,” Rhode says.

Buoyed by their success, the two eyed a larger endeavor – STAR Academy (www.star-academy.com), which, according to the organization, aims to “spark imagination, build confidence and develop skills that lead to scholarship and employment opportunities for tomorrow’s workforce.” Rhode says, “Our mission is to prepare students and adults for jobs that have not yet been created. Technology is moving so fast that we have to anticipate future needs and develop in our students the skills and confidence to solve problems we have not yet seen.”

STAR (Science, Technology, Art and Robotics) Academy, located on Greenspring Drive in Timonium, includes robotics training from beginner to advanced using popular platforms like First and VEX; drone training, where students will learn to build, fly and buy drones; 3D printing and design training; and game development and programming. Students will include those age 10 all the way up to age 70-plus, Rhode says. The STAR Academy will open Oct. 16.

STAR Academy’s tagline is “Where Technology Meets Fun.” “Coding and programming are valuable skills, but it’s not easy to get kids excited about it, but if it’s done using robotics or game development, there are much more likely to get excited about the work,” Rhode says.

Rhode and Mullin are tapping into the wealth of subject matter experts in the greater Baltimore area – engineers, game development designers, 3D manufacturing companies, etc. – who are lending their expertise and experience to teach students at STAR Academy, even if just for a few hours at a time.

And while working with robotics, developing video games and flying drones is fun, the mission is clear: to use the students’ interest in technology to teach skills that will lead to scholarships and jobs. “Many parents don’t realize that this work can lead to a college scholarship,” Mullin says. “Some parents have no issues spending $75 on a lacrosse uniform but may not see the same benefit in investing in robotics. My son was granted a full college scholarship for cyber and information technology, and employers and defense contractors are already trying to recruit him before he graduates.”

Rhode adds, “Playing sports at an early age may lead to an athletic scholarship, which will open many educational doors. Why not approach STEM the same way?”

And after college – or for some students even before they graduate high school – employers will come knocking. Mullin says STAR Academy can utilize his connections with business leaders, Baltimore City officials, State of Maryland officials and various counties’ Chambers of Commerce to connect talented STEM students with workforce needs. “We have smart kids who want to stay in Baltimore, have discipline and resiliency … and they can code,” Mullin says. Rhode adds that STAR Academy students also obtain life skills, sometimes referred to as “soft skills,” which are in high demand by employers and colleges alike.

“We are not just teaching technology; we teach project management, how to make deadlines, how to give presentations and the importance of teamwork,” Rhode says. STAR Academy holds an event modeled after the popular TV show, “Shark Tank” where students will present their gaming idea to a panel of area companies, which is especially important, as the I-95 corridor in Maryland is seen as the epicenter of game development on the east coast.

STAR Academy also works in tandem with employers and universities to ensure that the skills and knowledge taught match workforce needs.

“A few years ago, I would have never put ‘game development’ on the top of my wish list for my kids’ careers, but the job opportunities are endless,” says Rhode. I95

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