By Tom Still

MADISON – A bill that emerged from the Wisconsin Legislature’s closing surge will allow the state’s education agency to award small grants to high-school robotics teams, with the money used to pay for kits, supplies, contest fees and the like.

It’s a modest amount of money – the state Department of Public Instruction expects to absorb the cost within its existing budget – but it could have a big payback for students seeking a hands-on introduction to a tech-based career.

“We hear a lot about robots taking jobs away from manufacturing workers but we have been slow to acknowledge the new industry of robotic technicians vital to every manufacturing facility,” said Rep. Adam Neylon, the Pewaukee Republican who wrote the bill. “As the world becomes more integrated, we must train the next generation to compete in a global market.”

The robotics competition bill (AB 665 in the Assembly and SB 583 in the Senate) is just one example of emerging opportunities for students to learn new skills and career paths, often outside traditional classrooms.

As Wisconsin confronts the need to train, attract and retain young workers, such programs represent innovative ways to combat what is often called the “brain drain” problem. With hordes of “Baby Boomer” workers set to retire, the need to replenish the pipeline with talent from all directions is a top priority for Wisconsin’s economy.

There are many examples of educational innovation bubbling up in private and public settings, and here are two more:

  • Middle- and high-school students interested in turning their science- and tech-related ideas into business plans have until 5 p.m. April 4 to enter the fifth annual Wisconsin Youth Entrepreneurs in Science contest, also known as Wisconsin YES!

The contest begins with a 250-word summary submitted through Entries that advance to Phase 2 of the competition will expand their idea into a 1,000-word executive summary.

As a tool for educators, Wisconsin YES! fosters interest in science and tech education, and encourages students to be independent, creative thinkers capable of problem solving. Throughout the process, students get feedback from professionals across Wisconsin who will serve as judges.

Place finishers in each category – 9th grade and under, 10th grade, 11th grade and 12th grade – are eligible for cash and prizes. The grand prize winner will present his or her winning idea at the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference, June 8 in Madison. Past winners have hailed from Weston, Brookfield, New Glarus and La Crosse.

If you’re a teacher or parent looking to engage bright minds in a “spring break” project, Wisconsin YES! may provide a ready outlet.

  • Classes will begin this fall through the Destinations Career Academy of Wisconsin, which is based in the McFarland School District and specifically designed to help train high-school students for high-paying fields that need more workers, such as construction.

The school’s founders say students will be able to get a head start on careers by earning technical and specialty trade credentials and college credits along with their high-school diplomas.

The venture will be Wisconsin’s first career and technical education online school and potentially a national prototype, according to organizers. They include the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139, Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton and the McFarland School District, which is already home to another online school, the Wisconsin Virtual Academy.

The Destinations Career Academy will use the digital curriculum and academic services of K12 Inc., a for-profit education company based in Herndon, Va., which also serves the Wisconsin Virtual Academy. In addition to architecture and construction, the Destinations Career Academy will offer classes in business management and administration, health science and information technology.

It will be a tuition-free charter school. All teachers will be state-licensed and teach from virtual classrooms in their homes.

Students learn in different ways, especially in a digital age that provides platforms for them to engage outside the classroom. As Wisconsin looks to build the workforce of the future, innovative teaching methods will help fill the void.