From the CEO

Robotics Education Prepares Manatee County Students for Modern Workforce

By Sharon Hillstrom -

Special to the Herald-Tribune

May 1, 2023

This week, Manatee County elementary school students will have a chance to shine in the Lone Star State as they compete in the VEX Robotics World Championship, which brings together top robotics teams to celebrate their accomplishments and participate with the best teams from around the world.

Thirteen Manatee County teams will compete this week in Dallas. Among them, the first all-girls team to be fielded from the Bradenton area. The students will demonstrate robots they built in class, provide documentation about their projects, and respond to questions from judges. We wish them well.

This opportunity to stretch STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) learning to world-class competition was made possible by the 1-mill tax referendum Manatee County voters  approved. Funds generated by the original 2018 referendum were used for an additional 30 minutes of instructional time for students each school day, pay increases for teachers and other instructional staff, expansion of STEM programs, and to assist local charter schools.

In November 2021, Manatee County voters overwhelmingly approved a renewal of the 1-mill tax. The renewal included an additional focus on funding for arts programs across the school district. The emphasis on the arts transformed the STEM allocations into funding for STEAM – Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math.

An important aspect of the STEAM focus is the robotics curriculum that now applies across K-12 and on to college through Manatee Technical College. The 1-mill generates funding for equipment, as well as programs provided by respected organizations such as WOZ U, ROOTS, and Garner Holt.

The goal is to give students a foundation that will allow them to enter the workforce with an understanding and ability in robotics. This is great news for employers, as workplaces from health care to manufacturing are becoming more automated.

Students are learning how to build robotic devices, create computer coding to operate them, and use the engineering process to guide their projects. The school district continually looks for ways to push these learning opportunities into different grade levels, depending on where the programs first entered the county’s curriculum.

Examples of hands-on applications in the schools are fascinating and diverse. At Anna Maria Elementary, home of the world’s first Guy Harvey Academy of Arts and Science, students can build and manipulate a robot to discover what’s underwater. At other schools, students build, code and manipulate an industrial single-arm “cobot” to perform tasks, as they would in a manufacturing  environment. There’s another program in animatronics that ties engineering to performing arts. Students program a human figure to manipulate its motions, record a voice, and integrate a lighting package and videos.

What’s next? Healthcare applications like prosthetics engineering are coming soon, and then artificial intelligence (AI). The state recently approved a high school curriculum in AI, and the Manatee district is looking at how best to integrate it locally.

The quality of education and relevant workforce training are key hot buttons for corporate decision makers who choose where businesses locate and expand. At the Bradenton Area Economic  Development Corporation, marketing our community as a business location is one of our core functions. Being deeply engaged with the region’s educational institutions, including the school district, is an important component of our marketing strategy.

We are thrilled the students in Manatee County are learning STEAM applications that are in high demand with employers in the Bradenton area and beyond. To learn more about STEAM in Manatee County schools, visit To watch our students complete at VEX World May 2-4, visit

Sharon Hillstrom is president and chief executive officer of the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corp. ( She may be contacted at or 803-9036.

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