RENO, Nev. — If you build it, they will come — and so will their robots.
That’s the vision the University of Nevada, Reno had when it first took over operations of the Southside School from the city of Reno back in April 2019.
Renaming the facility Southside Studio, UNR began blueprinting plans to build on the innovation and economic activity it’s spurred through its UNR Innevation Center over the past five years (370 jobs created, north of $88 million in funding raised, according to a recent UNR report).
Above all, the university saw the historic building across the street from the Innevation Center as a new space where Washoe County students — from high school down to elementary — could converge and develop the skills needed for the jobs of the future in Northern Nevada.
Roughly 18 months later, UNR’s vision is coming into focus. In partnership with Tesla and EDAWN, the university is preparing to launch the K-12 Robotics Center inside the new Southside Studio by early 2021.
“We have to train our students in things that are disrupting our lives right now in this digital transformation,” said Mridul Gautam, UNR vice president for research and innovation. “And robotics is a huge part of that.”
Case in point: By 2025, roughly 85 million jobs may be displaced by a shift in the division of labor between humans and machines, according to a recent report by the World Economic Forum (WEF). However, the tech-driven economy will create about 97 million new roles geared toward robotics and automation, WEF estimates.
All told, by 2025, WEF forecasts that the time spent on tasks by humans and machines will be a 50-50 split. That’s a significant rise in automation compared to the current global economy, which runs on 30% of tasks done by machines.
With a surge of big tech and advanced manufacturing companies (Tesla, Google, Apple and more) plugging into the region over the past five years, some argue Northern Nevada is already behind the curve when it comes to preparing students for the tech-driven economy.
Put another way: Creating a K-12 robotics academy in Reno-Sparks was long overdue.
“We’re playing catch-up,” Gautam said. “We need to make sure the kids are learning the latest cutting-edge information. And we need to have a system in place that helps these kids advance and be able to compete with the best out there.”
Mike Kazmierski, president and CEO of the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada, agrees.
“We are years behind where we need to be,” Kazmierski, a longtime advocate of merging robotics into STEM education, said in an email to the NNBW. “But, thanks to Tesla and a more receptive attitude by (Washoe County School District) we are making significant progress. Integrating robotics into education at every level, which is a great visual symbol of the skills needed for the jobs of the future, is the key to preparing our kids to succeed while building a pipeline of talent for the quality companies coming here.”
The K-12 Robotics Center project will be the culmination of revamping the old gymnasium inside the two-story, 10,500-square-foot Southside Studio, according to the university.
With Tesla leading the design process, the gym will transformed into an arena for students of all ages to not only build and test robots, but also compete with them, Gautam said.
He pointed to the fact the UNR Innevation Center’s Makerspace is home to FYRE Robotics, a Reno team with members aged 13 to 18 that competes in the national FIRST Robotics Competition. The K-12 Robotics Center, he said, will give that team much-needed additional space.
“The whole idea is to build a buzz where kids in the neighborhood are talking about going to work with robotics at the Southside Studio,” said Gautam, noting that exposing low-income and underrepresented students to hands-on robotics experiences is especially important. “You’ve got to offer theses bright, young students research and experiential learning opportunities.
“And we need more of these (centers). Just because we have one, doesn’t mean we should stop.”
Meanwhile, as has been the case since UNR took over the building, the nonprofit Sierra Nevada Journeys will remain in Southside Studio once the robotics center opens. As for the building itself, the city of Reno leased it to the university for $7,268 a year for five years as part of the April 2019 transition.
“That’s a small cost to serve a mission that’s at our hands,” Gautam told the NNBW last week. “And the mission is to be a champion and leader of economic development in this community. Being a land grant institution, it falls upon us to do whatever we can to help this community be in a better place tomorrow than it was yesterday or today.”
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