The future of Indiana tech, a 20-year milestone and another successful Indiana Robotics Championship for TechPoint Foundation for Youth
The floor of Lucas Oil Stadium was in constant motion from 7:30 a.m. Saturday, March 25 to beyond 7:30 that evening as the Indiana Robotics State Championship took place.
More than 1,600 elementary, middle and high school students set up their pit areas, toting robots in boxes, and crates, on dollies and bare in their hands to practice and skill areas, competition arenas and back. Some wore sorcerer’s hats, others were in spangles, ball caps, fedoras and all manner of animals, real and imagined. Bright colors – a lot of it Day-Glo fluorescents – popped from all corners as teams decked out their pits with balloons, posters, spangles, plush animals and toys and inserted flair into their robots as well.
Coaches reminded competitors to focus, to use their skills and compete to win, but also to have fun. As practice and competition got underway, TechPoint President and CEO Ting Gootee, one of 400 volunteers for the day, gazed around, and tipped her head toward the competitors and said, “That’s the future of Indiana tech out there.”
TechPoint Foundation for Youth, which organizes the competition and is responsible for Indiana being the nation’s largest robotics competition state, celebrates 20 years this year of aligning its efforts with TechPoint.
“We’re TechPoint’s Foundation,” said Steve Ehrlich, who was there when the idea bloomed to partner closely with the tech community to start growing talent in underrepresented populations, specifically women and minorities, for the future technology workforce. It started as an idea originally developed by Ehrlich in collaboration with Aprimo’s founder and then CEO Bill Godfrey.
“We talked about creating a tech community-funded foundation to help bridge the digital divide to help underrepresented kids get into tech,” he said, “and we floated the idea with the Indiana Information Technology (INITA) board which was chaired by Mark Hill at the time. Mark loved the idea and set things in motion to establish a new foundation.”
At the time, two groups operated in the tech ecosystem support space: INITA and the Indy Tech Partnership. In 2003 these two organizations merged to form TechPoint. Each had its own charitable arm, and it was decided that the INITA Foundation would be carried forward and renamed the TechPoint Foundation with the mission to encourage underrepresented Hoosier youth to get involved in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) activities. TechPoint Foundation later added the phrase “for Youth” to its name in order to further distinguish it from TechPoint.
The missions of the two organizations are very complementary. TechPoint Foundation is a charitable organization focused on K-high school students while TechPoint is an industry association focused on college students, technology companies, and technology career professionals. As workforce demands have increased over the years, the two organizations have continued working closely where it makes sense.
In Ehrlich’s mind, the two organizations’ missions have always been connected. “There’s a reason our names are so similar,” he said. “TechPoint Foundation for Youth plants the seeds of interest in STEM beginning at a very early age, and TechPoint fosters a growing tech ecosystem so that these same kids can find work in their chosen careers right here in Indiana.”
The duo who hatched the idea for the Foundation prior to the 2003 merger might have guessed but couldn’t have known just how important the effort would become. Demand for tech workers in Indiana and around the globe far outstrips supply, and diversity in the Hoosier tech workforce is woefully low. Efforts to develop tech workers date back decades, but last year TechPoint launched Mission41K, perhaps the most comprehensive and coordinated effort to-date. Mission41K seeks to inclusively create 41,000 new Hoosier tech jobs by 2030.
It dovetails perfectly into the Foundation’s mission and life’s work and will play a key role. In its early years, the new foundation didn’t have a signature program but supported a number of STEM initiatives. In 2016, the Foundation created the Indiana State Robotics Initiative by expanding a successful Indianapolis workforce initiative started in 2012 by former Mayor Greg Ballard to remove cost barriers associated with launching robotics programs.
Indiana is the first state to invest public, private and philanthropic dollars in elementary education to cultivate student interest in high demand STEM careers. Prior to the Foundation’s State Robotics Initiative, Indiana had 73 elementary, 156 middle school, and 170 High School VEX teams.
Today, Indiana has 971 elementary, 550 middle school, and 244 high school VEX teams.
“We are planting STEM seeds early in these kids,” says Ehrlich, who over the years has served as the Foundations’ board chair, interim executive director and is now program chair. Like 17 other board members, he served a volunteer shift at the 2023 championship.
Foundation Board member and Microsoft CTO Kate Maxwell calls the event “one of her favorite days of the year.”
“These kids are just amazing,” she said. “It’s a joy to watch the teamwork, sportsmanship, and problem-solving in action. Many of these kids will go on to choose a STEM career thanks to their time in robotics, but no matter which path they choose, they learned life skills here.”
Given the energetic atmosphere and the setting – an NFL arena – one could be forgiven for thinking the championship and the Foundation’s work is well known throughout the state but Ehrlich says most Hoosiers – and too many tech companies – don’t really understand what TechPoint Foundation for Youth is all about.
“They are struggling every day to find workers,” he said. “Robotics programs build all the skills that our tech community needs – from coding and programming to soft skills, team building and problem solving. We are creating the future workforce with kids from across the socioeconomic spectrum and in all corners of the state.”
Indiana’s robotics initiative engages about 20,000 students each year, with teams from schools in every county and across every grade level. More than a third of Indiana’s robotics students are girls, nearly one-half are from resource-limited communities, and more than a third are students of color.
Since the first TechPoint Foundation-supported robotics team formed in 2016, more than 10,000 Hoosier children have participated in robotics programs. The Foundation team estimates that more than 1,100 of them of them are old enough to hold jobs in Indiana. (If you’re one of them, we’d love to hear from you!)
Back at Lucas Oil Stadium, the fuchsia-bedecked Gear Girlz 448E team was practicing under the direction of coach Bryson Ocker. They got involved when Ocker’s daughter, Riley, competed on an elementary school team. Ocker was a team mentor. There wasn’t a team at her current school, so Ocker signed up as a parent-sponsored team.
“I thought that I could really make a difference,” he said.
Ocker is an engineer at Rorak Welding and Engineering in Brownsburg. None of the few women at his job are working in tech careers.
“We just don’t give women in this field a fair shake,” he said. He hopes Riley will stay with robotics through high school. She enjoys programming with her dad. Her teammate, Adalyn Barcus, wants to be an engineer.
Gear Girlz advanced to the world competition level and were invited to go to the Texas competition. Ocker doesn’t know if he can continue financially supporting the team but plans to try.
“It’s great to see their confidence grow,” he said.
Nirdvaita Chandrana, Leni Lee and Alex Branhill fielded the CyberEAGLES team from the Sycamore School. Each of the middle school CyberEAGLES plan a STEM career in high school and in adult life. They laugh when told that statistics show girls often excel in STEM at their level but lose interest in later grades. That’s not going to happen to them, they say.
“I already know I’m going to do something in STEM as an adult,” Branhill said. She was on a robotics team that went to world’s last year. She got sick and wasn’t able to go with them. She’s hungry for another shot and got it when the Eagles advanced to world competition.
Across pit row, the Crown Point High School team, Whiplash, consisted of all boys. They said they’d tried to get girls to join their team but weren’t successful. Cameron Mucha has competed in robotics for seven years. “I just like beating other teams, basically,” he said.
Each of the boys said they planned to pursue STEM-related degrees. They, too, earned a world competition slot.
See all the winners here: https://www.techpointyouth.org/blog-2
“It’s great to see teams advance, but just being involved is huge for these kids,” said Foundation President and CEO George Giltner, who grew the robotics program into its current size in his former position and competed himself.
Donations are always welcomed by the Foundation team. Currently, the Foundation is raising money to help each of the 167 teams that advanced to the world-level competition afford travel, lodging and food expenses at the Dallas event, which runs from April 25-May 4. The Foundation has received requests for more than $20,000 to support the Indiana teams going to the world competition. At press time, the Foundation had raised slightly more than $6,000.
Donate to help the robotics teams here: https://p2p.onecause.com/worldchampcampaign
Beyond the competition, the Foundation is eager to attract more involvement from Indiana tech companies for program activities throughout the year.
You’ll hear more about the Foundation, its mission and its needs at TechPoint’s Mira Awards gala, but you don’t have to wait for that.
Explore how you can grow your own workforce and give your current team a fun and rewarding way to give back while you do it. Start at the Foundation’s website, and reach out to any team member to learn more.