Story by Mike Nolting, MetroNews

FAIRMONT, W.Va. — Fairmont State University has received a $2.5 million grant over the next five years from NASA to fund the operations of the Education Resource Center.

Fairmont State Professor Dr. Deb Hemler, told WAJR News that this award was a renewal of the grant for the operation of the ERC. About 20 years ago, when the first grant was received, the ERC started with one worker.

“We have now expanded to four full-time employees, and we have a college intern and four AmeriCorps members working with us,” Hemler said. “So, we have a pretty sizable staff.”

When the program started 20 years ago, the focus was learning for teachers. Over time, that focus has shifted to the students and the First Lego League and VEX Robotics competitions. Hemler said next they’ll expand into drone competitions.

“We’re now doing state competitions with drones, which we really haven’t done,” Hemler said. “Before, we’ve dabbled in it, and now that’s a new initiative for us.”

All of the exercises are science, technology, engineering, and math-related (STEM). Students have to learn the code to manipulate the robot of the drone and then have to be able to diagnose problems and make repairs as quickly as possible when needed.

“It will help them in the future in terms of understanding modern technology and how computers work,” Hemler said. “They’re using mathematics in a very concrete, real way.”

Hemler said the students also learn to work as a team with a deadline. Team members are required to attend meetings, learn their roles, and be prepared for the unexpected. The lessons of trial and error also teach students patience and perseverance.

“It really does help them hone the soft skills that are desperately needed in the workplace,” Hemler said. “Plus, they have to finish things on time, document what they’re doing, and do research; it’s a lot more than just having fun with a robot.”

The ERC also operates a loan-and-learn kit program for regional STEM classrooms. Hemler said they are able to share unique and very specialized learning tools for local schools and youth groups. Teachers or organizations that check out the materials are also given training to take the kit back to the classroom.

“A $25,000 Star Lab, for example—we have two of them; we have $10,000 robotics kits that they can teach and learn; we have engineering design challenge kits; and we have rocket kits,” Hemler said.

“Fairmont State is delighted to continue our relationship with NASA IV&V through the Education Resource Center,” said Dr. Mike Davis, President of Fairmont State University. “This initiative is crucial to providing high-quality STEM education in North, Central, and West Virginia. We’re grateful to the Katherine Johnson NASA IV&V for this grant—it allows Fairmont State to affirm and strengthen our commitment to developing innovative education that transforms individuals and communities.”