Northeast Community College to share in $25 million award to develop robotics/automation curriculum

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Northeast Community College will play a key role in a new $25 million effort to help Nebraska become a national leader in robotic technologies and automation in the manufacturing and agriculture industries.

Northeast is one of six partners in the Heartland Robotics Cluster that will receive funding from the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) through its Build Back Better Regional Challenge program. President Biden announced that the cluster is one of 21 winners of the $1 billion Build Back Better Regional Challenge.

Funded by the President’s American Rescue Plan and administered by the Commerce Department’s EDA, the Regional Challenge provides each award winner funding to rebuild regional economies, promote inclusive and equitable recovery, and create thousands of good-paying jobs in industries of the future such as clean energy, next-generation manufacturing, and biotechnology. The 21 programs were among an initial pool of 529 applicants.

Other partners in the Heartland Robotics Cluster are the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Engineering, the Nebraska Innovation Studio, and the Manufacturing Extension Partnership; Metro Community College, and Invest Nebraska - The Combine Incubator. Invest Nebraska serves as the lead of the cluster.

“The Build Back Better Regional Challenge places community and equity at the heart of its design. With this grant, technological development, revitalization of communities, and job creation go hand in hand,” said U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo. “Invest Nebraska Corporation and its coalition partners will spur technology innovation in the state to fortify our nation’s food supply chain, support rural workers, and accelerate technology.”

Nebraska Second District Congressman Don Bacon said the grant will assist cluster members in their role revitalizing the rural labor force in the state, which he describes as a key component of the nation’s food supply chain.

“As a member of the House Agricultural Committee, I routinely hear from our ag producers about the growing need to develop more robotic technologies and manufacturing automation,” Bacon said.

Northeast will receive approximately $4.6 million of the Heartland Robotics Cluster’s overall $25 million award - $3.4 million for the development of a fabrication lab in downtown Norfolk and $1.2 million to create a two-year robotics/automation curriculum and technology outreach program. It is the largest federal grant Northeast has ever received.

The fabrication lab will be geared to the workforce needs of local and area manufacturers, many of which generate products and serve clients that support the agriculture industry. The fab lab will also create an environment where ideas are shared and become reality through applied technologies, economic and community development, business and industry training, and personal development.

Once the space in downtown Norfolk is renovated, it will feature high-tech equipment and collaborative workspace to allow manufacturers to explore ideas, streamline production processes and create prototypes. The lab will be open to the public, offer a variety of membership and use options, and include space for student robotics use.

Northeast Dean of Applied Technology Shanelle Grudzinski said the College is “beyond excited” to partner with Invest Nebraska and others who share a vision of looking at rural vitality and community growth through a different lens.

“As an innovative approach to engaging cross disciplinary boundaries and programs, along with the community, the Northeast Community College Fabrication Lab is being built in the heart of downtown Norfolk to assist in stimulating the entrepreneurial ecosystem and expanding educational opportunities for a wide variety of groups ranging from K-12 students to two-year and four-year college students, to incumbent workers, to the community at large,” Grudzinski said. “It is an opportunity to combine resources, knowledge, and local talent while offering affordable and accessible manufacturing and creative equipment for individuals to ideate, prototype, problem-solve, and produce with as we work collaboratively to address workforce challenges and economic development opportunities.”

The development of a robotics/automation curriculum at Northeast will not be a one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, it will be designed to meet workforce development needs as well as the needs of individuals who are interested in exploring and pursuing careers in the field. The workforce development focus area will consist of certification courses in a variety of career areas. The student robotic curriculum will offer courses that are research-backed and include real-world contextual applications to help individuals understand why they’re learning the concepts; instruction on how to program behaviors; challenges to apply their knowledge; and use of knowledge assessments.

“It is exciting news to receive the Heartland Robotic Cluster award. It will play a vital role in robotics outlook for our rural areas of Nebraska, especially, the outreach plan that focuses on underserved populations,” said Shubha Krishnamurthy, information technology program director at Northeast. “It opens up a world of opportunities for our workforce to try the latest and greatest in the field of automation and create some innovative solutions in their businesses. I am thrilled to be a part of this team and would love to explore all the limitless prospects it brings in. I would like to invite all our students and businesses to make the best use of this.”

Throughout the development work, Northeast will collaborate with Metro Community College in Omaha in sharing data to help strategically launch new programming or improving upon existing curriculum. Sharing the results of that work with Nebraska’s other community colleges will ultimately ensure greater capacity statewide in preparing individuals for the skilled workforce.

Running parallel with the curriculum development will be the implementation of an outreach plan based on input from community partners. With the development of the plan, these events will include a new focal point of highlighting training and courses available in robotics and automation – and how they create high-paying opportunities within state manufacturing operations.

“EDA is proud to support the vision of the Heartland Robotics Cluster as it engages rural communities in tech-based economic development,” said Alejandra Y. Castillo, assistant secretary of Commerce for Economic Development. “This EDA investment will transform the agricultural industry in Nebraska and position the region as a leader in innovation that will make our food supply more efficient and sustainable.”

“The Heartland Robotics Cluster exemplifies the spirit of Nebraska – community, collaboration, rural vitality, and a can-do attitude to address workforce challenges,” said Dr. Leah Barrett, president of Northeast. “Dan Hoffman (CEO of Invest Nebraska) and Kent Warneke (director of grants at Northeast) were masterful at bringing together organizations that are committed to ensuring rural vitality and innovation in our state. We look forward to working with our partners to develop programs and experiences to support innovation in our industries, career pipelines for our children, and a place for learners and builders to explore and create.”

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