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Some worry state cuts will stifle new robotics teams

State cuts to FIRST Robotics aid won’t have much impact on exiting robotics teams in the area, but the lost funding may have long-term effects if not restored, according to coaches of Monadnock area programs.

FIRST is a national organization that allows children to build and compete with robots, with the goal of encouraging interest in science, technology, engineering and math fields.

Teams that compete in the national For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, or FIRST, and have relied on state funding, will have to go without assistance from the state for at least the next two years.

The House and Senate recently agreed on a two-year budget that cut $200,000 from the aid program, which helps local teams pay for operation costs and the kits needed to build robots .

Brighid Wood of Greenfield, one of the senior mentors for Team 1729 — a Dublin-based 4-H team that includes members from all over the Monadnock region — noted that the effects of the cuts were more likely going to be felt long-term. It’s programs like FIRST, she said, that encourage interest in careers such as math, science and technology.

“We need to support things that are going to create competitive jobs,” she said .

Her husband, Andre Wood, noted that their team won’t be impacted by state cuts to FIRST, since they haven’t received any in the past and aren’t anticipating a need in the future. But they were hit by a previous budget cut — one to 4-H . Those cuts led to less support from 4-H for the robotics teams last year , including a cut to 4-H’s state-level position of grant manager . The grant manager had facilitated the process of reimbursing teams which often pay for things pay-out-of pocket in anticipation of receiving grant funds .

Without that position, the team can still apply for and receive grant funding, but the process of getting those funds reimbursed is significantly delayed, which can create cash-flow problems, Brighid Wood said .

“Funding has been an issue for our local teams, just because we’re having a tough time raising the money,” said Andre Wood, noting that the number of teams in the area has gone down since he began mentoring Team 1729. “I’m not sure realistically that the budget being cut at the state is going to have a direct impact on us. The state doesn’t give us direct funding.”

While most of the area teams, including Conval and Conant high school teams, as well as local 4-H clubs — Team 1729 and the Bennington-based Wapack Robotics — have received little to no state aid since their inception, it’s still a loss, said Brighid Wood . The cuts can make it more difficult to implement new teams and get them off the ground, said Brighid Wood. Schools that don’t currently have a team, such as Mascenic Regional High School or Wilton-Lyndeborough Cooperative, might find starting a team to be prohibitively expensive.

Depending on the level of competition a team wishes to enter, the program can cost several thousand dollars to run.

For example, the Conant FIRST Robotics team is fairly new — only a few years old — and while it’s been running without state aid for the past two years, state funds were used to get it started, said Conant Principal John Batch in an interview Tuesday. However, Batch said the school has not needed it since, and has not anticipated any state aid in the coming years. Despite the cuts, the program will continue to operate at Conant without any changes. As long as there’s student interest, Conant will have a team in the coming school year, Batch said.

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