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Stemiverse 0063 – Dan Mantz discusses robotics competition in a post-COVID world 

 June 11, 2021

By  Lina Alexaki

Summary

In this episode of Stemiverse, Dr. Peter Dalmaris talks to Dan Mantz.

Dan is the Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of the Board for the Robotics Education and Competition Foundation (REC) and has more than 25 years of experience in the fields of software, electrical, and mechanical engineering.

As the CEO of REC Foundation, Dan has a unique perspective of STEM education, robotics, and how competition can propel learning and inspire the world’s next generation of engineers.

Given that we are now more than a year into the Covid-pandemic, I’m keen to learn how REC Foundation’s competitions have evolved to deal with the difficulties and risks of holding live events that involve domestic and international travel and a lot of people and their robots.

Watch the video version of this episode

Show Notes

Click on the timestamps to shuffle to the topic of your interest.

  • [00:01:44] An overview of the REC Foundation as an institution: Its mission and some of the tangible benefits that we can recognize in the community since its inception.
  • [00:15:02] The REC Foundation has a strong competitive element integrated in the way that it operates. Taking into account expressions of skepticism among teachers and parents about how well competition can co-exist with education, Dan explains how education plus competition can work within the REC Foundation framework.
  • [00:23:05] The main motivations of people signing-up for REC Foundation events.
  • [00:28:11] How the REC Foundation has evolved to operate in a world learning to live with COVID-19:
    • What it is like to be in a traditional (i.e., pre-COVID) REC Foundation event.
    • How the REC Foundation operated during the pandemic, what has changed and what has not.
  • [00:46:42] What the REC Foundation is going to be like in the near future: The things that it has learned during the pandemic and how they have affected its vision for what technology education will be like.
  • [00:52:07] REC Foundation contact information and further resources:

Full interview transcript

Read Full Transcript

Peter Dalmaris: [00:00:00] Hi, everyone, and welcome to another Stemiverse episode. Today, I have the pleasure of talking to Dan Mantz. Dan is the Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of the Board for the Robotics Education and Competition Foundation, REC. And has more than 25 years of experience in the fields of software, electrical, and mechanical engineering. As the CEO of REC, Dan has a unique perspective of STEM education, robotics, and how competition can propel learning and inspire the world’s next generation of engineers.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:00:32] Given that we are now more than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m keen to learn how REC’s competitions have evolved to deal with the difficulties and risks of holding live events that involve domestic and international travel, and a lot of people and their robots. Dan, thank you for joining me. How are you today?

Dan Mantz: [00:00:53] I’m doing really well, Peter. Thanks for having, especially, all the Australians out there, which we’re really excited about because we have a great program in Australia also.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:01:02] Yeah. Yeah. After you contacted me, I was aware of the REC Foundation and its work, but I took another look in the last few days I was preparing for this interview. And I’ve got to say that I’m impressed, especially the growth that you have achieved during the COVID-19 pandemic, and we’ll get into that as well. This is something that is very interesting to me, how an organization like yours that is based on face-to-face events evolved to take – maybe not advantage is the right word, but to evolve along with what is happening around us in the world, and losing time, and, I guess, losing steam during this time.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:01:44] So, just in case one of our listeners is not familiar with the REC Foundation and its mission and its work, could you take a few minutes to tell us what is the REC Foundation as an institution and describe what its mission is.

Dan Mantz: [00:02:01] Absolutely. So, the Robotics Education and Competition Foundation, so REC Foundation as you said, we’ve been around for about 15 years, 13 years as a not-for-profit. And, basically, we’re trying to increase student interest in STEM, which is Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math by using hands-on, affordable, and sustainable robotics engineering programs. So, that was the basis of what we started 15 years ago.

Dan Mantz: [00:02:26] Over the past few years, we’ve actually expanded quite a bit. So, while our mission hasn’t changed, the activities that we do to accomplishment have grown. So, we’re probably best known for our VEX Robotics competition, which is close to 30,000 teams globally, impacting almost 350,000 students participated in the pre-COVID year. We’re in over 70 countries. And that’s, like I said, probably our most well-known program.

Dan Mantz: [00:02:51] But over the past couple of years, we’ve also added multiple drones programs and we’ve added a factory automation competition that really focuses on workforce development. And all those activities are supplemented by our online educational resources, which includes STEM Labs, knowledge-base, and online challenges.

Dan Mantz: [00:03:11] So, again, VEX Robotics is mostly what we’re known for. But we’re so much more now, because one of the things that we realized – and my background is industrial robotics. I spent 20 years at FANUC – is not all students want to do mobile robotics. But we think all students need an opportunity to at least try a STEM activity. So, we think that drones and online challenges, and some of these and other activities really gives more students an opportunity.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:03:37] So, robotics is, I guess, the flagship objective of the REC Foundation. But over the years you’ve expanded into other areas. Still, though, automation is a strong component of what you do, whether it’s industrial, robotics, obviously, and you introduced drones as well. Could you tell us why the focus in automation? Do you see perhaps as this being a very useful skill for people to have in the future, the way that, you know, the economy and technology is heading? Something else, perhaps?

Dan Mantz: [00:04:16] Yes. Absolutely. I mean, it’s really important that our programs provide students a fun activity, but also addresses the global workforce shortage. I mean, not just in the United States and Australia, but globally, STEM jobs are growing at a much faster rate than non-STEM jobs. I mean, artificial intelligence, Industry 4.0, robotics are becoming more and more common. And we feel that our programs help bridge that gap.

Dan Mantz: [00:04:40] So, we’ll always need engineers and mathematicians. And a lot of students in our program may go into the traditional STEM fields. But even in our day-to-day operations, students in our programs will now go into the manufacturing jobs, or they’ll go into the robotics jobs, or they’ll do a technical job that’s not even under traditional fields, such as home robotics. We actually have a few alumni that are working for some of the home robotics companies.

Dan Mantz: [00:05:06] And more importantly than even just the robotics skills they’re learning, they’re learning the soft skills, which is communications, and troubleshooting, and problem solving, and collaboration. All the students in our program learn those skills. So, whether they choose a STEM career or a technical career, or they go into banking, or legal, or something like that, those problem solving and communication skills serve them well, too. But, again, we want more students to be engaged in technology. That’s our primary mission. And we think that our robotics platform and our drones platform is as a way to accomplish that.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:05:40] Yeah. In my experience, I find that, you know, working with robotics is multi-disciplinary, not just in terms of the kind of technical skills that you need. So, you need software development capabilities, mechanical development capabilities, there’s the user interface aspects, there’s the cloud now. There’s so many things that can come in. But because of the complication there, you also need a lot of people, and this is where the soft skills come in as well, especially in a team environment, like what happens in a real REC Foundation event. So, I can see why you can even become a lawyer by learning —

Dan Mantz: [00:06:23] Absolutely. I mean, absolutely. And I think at the end of the year – and I tell this story a lot – when parents come up to me or coaches come up to me, rarely do they talk about the technical skills they learned. I mean, it happens once in a while. Someone will say their student is a much better programmer or they really love mechanical engineering because of their experience. But, overwhelmingly, 95 or 97 percent of the time, parents and coaches come up, too, and thank us because they really improved – again, what we call – the soft skills, the communication skills, the problem solving, the working under pressure, all that set of skills. That’s what they’ve really, really learned from our program.

Dan Mantz: [00:06:59] And those skills transcend in any industry. I mean, creative thinking, collaboration, communication, those are what every employer is looking for. And interestingly enough, we just had a keynote speaker at our most recent event and she was a lawyer. And I thought her message about how robotics helped her was fantastic. My daughter – all three of my daughters have been involved in robotics, and one of them is a marketing major right now. So, [inaudible] traditional STEM skill. But she’s done a fantastic job of leading teams and problem solving skills that I think she learned in robotics. So, again, we are happy with the technical skills that we teach, but it’s really about providing students a well-rounded opportunity.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:07:41] I think you’ve already answered my next question, which was, just talk about a few of the tangible benefits that the foundation has achieved over the years. I think you just mentioned a few people that went through the program. They didn’t go into, I guess, engineering style career. They did other things. But it took a lot of benefits from their experience with the REC Foundation events and going through the program. Is there anything else that you could add into, like the success stories that came out of the foundation’s work?

Dan Mantz: [00:08:13] Yes. Absolutely. So, if we look back at our core mission about getting students involved in STEM, there’s some data out there from universities, studies that we’ve actually funded, like, with Georgia Tech and Utah State. But what some of the most interesting data is that 89 percent of the students in our program are more likely to study STEM courses in college. And 97 percent of our students now understand engineering. And 83 percent plan to take technical courses and future ones. And 87 percent want a job in a STEM or computer field. So, those are some of the tangible.

Dan Mantz: [00:08:49] You know, we’re at a point where over half the students in our programs go and pursue a four year degree. But I’m just as excited about the students that don’t. Because one of my favorite statistics that I like to quote is, “Students that compete in our programs, participate their industry certifications 50 percent of the time.” So, basically, if you’ve been on a VEX Robotics team or on a drones team, and now you go into the workforce and you need to learn your industry skills, the students in our program completed in half the time.

Dan Mantz: [00:09:20] So, we have doctors, we have lawyers, we have NASA astronauts. We have a lot of those high profile positions. But we also have people working in factories that are maintaining the robots, or teaching the robots, or they’re working on guided vehicles. And they may not have their four year degree, but they’re valuable contributors and they’re earning a good salary. They have job security. And they’re helping keeping manufacturing jobs in Australia, or in the United States, or Canada, or anywhere where our programs are.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:09:54] Perfect. And is it true that the way that the program is structured, you are, I guess, bringing in students from diverse backgrounds, boy, girls, type of balance in the teams. Is there something you can say about this?

Dan Mantz: [00:10:12] Yeah. Absolutely. So, in 2016, it became quite the crisis in the United States. But globally, people with diverse backgrounds, underprivileged – is what we call it in the U.S. – and women in STEM were very underrepresented in STEM jobs in the workforce, less than 20 percent. So, we took a hard look at our own program and we realized that only 23 percent of the students in our programs were women, for example.

Dan Mantz: [00:10:37] So, we started our Girl Power initiative. And every year, through seminars, through lots and lots of grants, we give out hundreds of hundreds of grants a year to start teams with girls, young women, through our online challenges, through great sponsorships, like with Google and Texas Instruments. We’ve been successful. The past year, 43 percent of the students in our programs were women. And in our elementary and middle school programs, it’s actually over 50 percent. So, we’re hitting that goal.

Dan Mantz: [00:11:08] But we also have other initiatives. One of our most passionate initiatives recently is our Native American initiative. So, in the United States, Native Americans are even more significantly underserved in STEM jobs, it’s under 3 percent. So, we’ve partnered with Native American tribes and we’ve started programs throughout the U.S. And we literally have success stories where students didn’t enjoy going to school and now they stay every single day to be on the robotics team. Their grades have improved. They’re graduating at a much higher rate from secondary school. And then, of course, we also have initiatives for Hispanic students, for African-American students. We have all those initiatives.

Dan Mantz: [00:11:48] But as an ecosystem, it’s one of the pillars of what we do at the REC Foundation. We don’t want to just reach the students that already have those advantages. We want to make sure that everybody has the opportunity. Because, frankly, when students get the skills in our program – and other programs, too, not just ours – they go into their workforce, so they go into college with much more confidence and they’re more likely to stay involved. And then, that’s what’s really, really important.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:12:13] That’s impressive. And it could be a topic on its own to discuss how you do it, how do you approach underprivileged young people, underrepresented. Maybe in a nutshell you could give us some hints, for example. Do you modify programs to make them more appropriate for women, for example, or Native Americans, or Hispanics? Or is it in the messaging, perhaps, on how you invite them to become part of the foundation’s work? Or, perhaps, both of something else? In a nutshell —

Dan Mantz: [00:12:49] I think it’s a multiple approach. So, for example, we have a program for students with disabilities, so cognitive learning lessons. But even then, we don’t radically change our program. So, in our elementary program, it’s one minute for a match and we increase it two minutes. And we partner with leading organizations in the U.S., National Society of Black Engineers, together, we recruit underrepresented groups to give scholarships and grants to.

Dan Mantz: [00:13:14] But I think what we really do that’s probably, I think, the best impact long term is for our Girl Power and some other grants, we don’t give it to just start girl teams. So, we give it to make the teams inclusive and represent what society is. So, we have some great workshops, and the Googles, and the TIs, and the Northrop Grumman sends speakers. And we make it fun. We do fun activities. We have cookies, give out shirts. But what we really do is we give a lot of grants out. I’m talking hundreds and hundreds of grants a year. Probably, for our Girl Power, that’s about 600 grants a year for the young women to actually join a team.

Dan Mantz: [00:13:51] And sometimes they join an all girls team or probably 70 percent of the time that team at least has one young man, one boy. On average, it’s 50-50. So, what we’re doing is we’re giving the girls the opportunity. And then, we have a lot of instruction on making sure that girls have a chance to drive the robot, make sure they have a chance to build. Because our data shows that boys grow up playing with Legos, and cars, and stuff like that, and sometimes the girls don’t. But the girls are often a lot more confident in journal writing, the engineering design process. So, what we really try to do is, “Hey, the boys should take part in the engineering design process and the girls should get a chance to drive, and maybe wreck the robot, to build the robot, to definitely program the robot.”

Dan Mantz: [00:14:35] And I think when we get students at a young age, before stereotypes are formed, that takes care of itself. So, at the beginning, we focus a lot of our diversity initiatives on high school. But right now, my focus has been on elementary and middle schools because we want to get them before those stereotypes take place.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:14:53] Yeah. Very true. Great. It’s clearly working. So, yeah, this is something for everyone to look at as an example of what is possible to do. I’d like to switch to another topic now that, again, is in the core of what the foundation does, and that is competition. So, in traditional education, I guess they are competitive in a way where you do some work, you get a mark from the teacher. But that mark is not really for you comparable to others. The teacher knows how I compare against others in the same class because of the mark that I receive. But that doesn’t come to me. So, I have no way of knowing.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:15:34] But in the work that the REC Foundation is doing – this is cool – you’ve got competitions, the events are competitive, you’ve got winners and you’ve got losers. But somehow education does happen. And it seems like the participants, whether win or lose, are extremely happy to come back and to try again. So, can you tell us how you got this to work and what does competitive education really means for you?

Dan Mantz: [00:15:59] Sure. I mean, so in many schools, in the U.S. and Australia in particular, there are technical classes, engineering classes, and these schools use the VEX Robotics curriculum. So, VEX Robotics is one of the leading STEM education companies in the world. And so, we’ll get teams started because they’re doing VEX in the classroom. But over half of our teams are doing it as – what we would call – an after school activity. But – complement is the word I would use – it complements traditional education.

Dan Mantz: [00:16:27] So, the first area that I think it really does well is it teaches the soft skills that we already talked about, I won’t rehash it. But when you’re on a robotics team and you’re competing, your communication skills, your troubleshooting skills, and your teamwork collaboration skills really, really develop. So, that’s something that probably develops better in an extracurricular activity than, maybe, in some classroom activities.

Dan Mantz: [00:16:50] The other things it does is, it really reinforces what you’re already learning. So, my best example that I like to say is gear ratios. So, there’s always a trade off between power and speed. And you may learn that in your math class or, more likely, your physics or science class. But you see it for real in competition robotics, and that reinforces it.

Dan Mantz: [00:17:10] And we do complement education by providing STEM Labs and knowledge-based articles for free. So, all the educators in our programs get all these resources and we literally use examples of changing a drive train on a robot for torque versus speed or looking at different mechanisms. So, defining what a four-bar link system is, defining what a gripper system is. And these are all hands-on activities that make it fun, but also reinforce what you’re learning in the classroom. So, I think it’s two-fold of (A) reinforcing the technical knowledge, but (B) increasing the soft skills, the troubleshooting, and, what I would also say, creative thinking.

Dan Mantz: [00:17:50] And, together, the data shows – I mean, the data is very verifiable from multiple organizations, not just the REC Foundation – that it has a very proven positive impact on participants. There’s many, many studies out there that show that students increase their interest by three-fold in STEM, or they will pursue a STEM career four times, or they improved their problem solving skills by 98 percent. I mean, there’s much, much data that shows that competitions works. It should never replace traditional education, but it should definitely complement it.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:18:23] Yeah. I think it’s a big aspect of the reason why such type of educational competition is beneficial also because of the team element. So, these are not solo competitions. You’ve got teams against teams. And as you were talking about gears and gear ratios, I was actually thinking of people. Like, people and these gears in the team, and then they’ve got to match each other. I guess, the chemistry has to be good, the cooperation has to be good, in order for the team to achieve maximum torque.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:18:58] And, also, just to conclude my thinking process here, the people in the teams tend to be young people, I guess in elementary or maybe high school. At least in my time when I was in high school and elementary school, there were no team educational activities. We just had sports. Maybe you we’re in a team in a sport. But not learning geography or mathematics. There was no engineering back then in school.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:19:29] In your case, you put kids in teams to go into competition. So, I guess that’s, in a way, unseen in other educational contexts. Can you tell us about how kids in your competitions tend to mature when you compare the same child to the beginning prior to joining a team? Go through the tribulations of being in a team, getting ready for a competition, and then after, the end of the competition. How has a child evolved?

Dan Mantz: [00:20:01] That’s a fantastic question. I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that question before. So, I think we always talk about the teamwork and collaboration. We’ve already seen it multiple times today. So, when you join a robotics team, you are going to have a role. It is not an activity. And we like to even say it’s a sport. It’s not a sport or activity that you will excel by yourself. So, teamwork is the key. And that’s, again, what the parents and the coaches always come up and thank me for is the teamwork, problem solving, and communication skills.

Dan Mantz: [00:20:30] So, a good example is on a VEX Robotics team, you’re going to have someone who’s primarily the driver or maybe two drivers. You’re going to have the programing lead or maybe two programing lead. You’re going to have the person that does the building, someone who does the CAD. And you’re going to have someone that does the design process and documents that. And someone who’s strong. But what’s amazing is, when these teams come together, the roles will often change.

Dan Mantz: [00:20:55] So, you may come in thinking, “I’m going to be the biggest builder.” And it turns out you have a really good aptitude of understanding the design process. Or the really quiet person has never said anything but joins a robotics team, now, all of a sudden, is the best person on strategy or maybe they’re the best at programing. I mean, I can’t believe how many students in our program have actually never programed or coded before. And then, they join the team and, all of a sudden, that’s what they want to do is major in computer science.

Dan Mantz: [00:21:24] So, you join it in order to be a successful team. All the parts have to work together. Teamwork is absolutely essential. And I think there’s so many different opportunities that everybody finds their niche and that’s where they really gel.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:21:38] Wow. So, there’s also an element of self-discovery there?

Dan Mantz: [00:21:42] I think so. I think maturity. I think that’s one thing we see in our program. I’ve seen it with even a couple of my own kids that joined robotics. And you can’t be that – excuse me – obnoxious, loud kid, and thrive on a robotics team. You’re going to get called out. And if you want to belong, you’re going to learn to be respectful. You’re going to learn to be polite.

Dan Mantz: [00:22:02] Matter of fact, at the REC Foundation, one of the first things we implemented after I joined was a code of conduct. So, we clearly lay out the expected behaviors of the students and the coaches and the parents too. So, sometimes parents can be a little bit passionate. So, that code of conduct, if you want to participate, you agree to the code of conduct. And we do enforce it.

Dan Mantz: [00:22:23] And the other thing we do at the REC Foundation is, we’re very student-centered. There’s other organizations that are about different skills, but we believe that students thrive if they’re hands-on. So, we literally have guides for coaches and parents on how much is too much and how much is appropriate. So, you’ve got yellow, red, and green. Red, you’re doing too much for the students. Yellow, if they’re learning, if they’re emerging, that’s the appropriate input. And then, green is students are doing it all. So, we think that those combinations of the code of conduct and the student-centered really helped the students mature to have a great experience. And, honestly, be better adults.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:23:05] Perfect. I’ve got another relevant question and then we’re going to move into something else, like, more organizational aspects of the foundation’s work. So, I can imagine a young student hearing about the REC Foundation work and its events, maybe a friend told him about it, and they’re thinking of joining. They go to their parents and say I want to join. And they eventually do. I wanted to hear about your experiences in relation to the kind of motivations that parents and the kids that are joining have when they’re at the beginning of the journey.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:23:37] And then, whether you think that they have achieved those objectives and motivations that they had coming into the REC Foundation and its events. And whether those have actually been superseded by some more important things that you just mentioned a few minutes earlier. So, basically, whether the hook in joining the REC Foundation’s work is something else, let’s call it A. But then, the real joy, the real achievement is something else, which is B. Which they don’t know coming in until they come out of it. I hope my questions makes sense.

Dan Mantz: [00:24:16] Yeah, it does. I think a lot of people join robotics or parents will push students into robotics because they’re worried about their students having employable skills. So, everybody has now heard the word robotics and robotics are such an important part of our future. So, join a robotics team, they’ll learn the skills. I think that’s one of the expected outcomes when parents or teachers start a robotics team.

Dan Mantz: [00:24:40] Again, I think the surprise to them is how they’ve evolved as a person, that they’re much more confident, they communicate better. And then, there’s the joy too. I mean, students really love being on a robotics team. They really, really love competing. It’s one of the reasons the REC Foundation chose to have a season with the global pandemic, when most organizations didn’t, because we realized that you can do so much – what I would call – virtually. Because in the REC Foundation, virtual and remote are different. So, a lot of students were doing virtual, but we thought hands-on was still key because of those outcomes of working with other students and competing against other students. That’s such an important part.

Dan Mantz: [00:25:21] And I think that’s probably where the parents are most surprised or the coaches, is, how much the students really love the community. I mean, discord and all those chat rooms are just full of thousands and thousands – I shouldn’t say thousands, hundreds of thousands of students that communicate across the globe because robotics is now their passion. It’s like rugby in Australia or soccer, those have those passions. And students in our program are just as passionate.

Dan Mantz: [00:25:48] And we have a life-changing – I don’t want to overstate it, but our programs are life-changing to some students. Because they didn’t have their place and they joined a robotics team, and that becomes their social circle, their friends, their reason for going to school. And I think that’s what surprises the parents is they get the the technology skills, but they really learn to be part of a community

Peter Dalmaris: [00:26:10] And a new way of thinking which doesn’t come off from those types of activities.

Dan Mantz: [00:26:15] And, Peter, I can’t wait to talk about how we did in COVID. But the one thing that I’ve been messaging a lot is that, robots is a universal language. So, with over 70 countries in our programs – and I think we’ll be 80 very soon. And my goal is to be 100 by the end of the next year – but the one thing that students speak is the robot language. So, when you come to a VEX Robotics World Championship and you have China competing against Australia, against New Zealand, against Canada, and, of course, within the United States, the culture in the northeast is much different than the south, and there’s accents and stuff, everybody can communicate. It’s a universal language.

Dan Mantz: [00:26:52] And what I love about the program – and I said this in one other interview, so this is the second time – is, I think it brings down cultural barriers, too. And that’s an unintended benefit of our program that I learned. I think people are more tolerant, because now that a student in Louisiana or Texas is mingling with the student in Washington and Oregon, or the student from Spain or the UK is competing with New Zealand or China. And I think there’s an awareness that at the end of the day, we’re all students, we’re all stressed about grades, we’re stressed about dating.

Dan Mantz: [00:27:24] And so, I think robotics, an unintended consequence of this, is, it brings cultural awareness and, I think, tolerance, too. And that’s kind of a deep thought but I truly believe that. And if you come to any international VEX Robotics competition, you will see that firsthand.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:27:43] Competition in my mind brings up sports. And the word I think fits very well with what you’re talking about is sportsmanship. So, you’ve got really true sportsmanship in a robotics competition, where competitors actually help each other to do better.

Dan Mantz: [00:28:03] That’s for sure. I mean, again, we actually say sportsmanship in the REC Foundation Code of Conduct. It’s a key word.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:28:11] All right. Let’s get into the how now. How an event works? And, of course, now we talk about how pre-COVID and then how during and after COVID. So, maybe give us in a nutshell how robotics, again, took place pre-COVID. And then, some of the biggest changes that you had to undertake in order to make this possible to continue during and post-COVID.

Dan Mantz: [00:28:40] Sure. So, the REC Foundation, when we run our VEX Robotics competitions pre-COVID, we were up to almost 3,000 competitions globally a year. That’s 3,000 competitions. But what’s interesting is the REC Foundation doesn’t run them directly. We rely on a network of volunteers, called Event Partners, that hosts the competitions on our behalf.

Dan Mantz: [00:29:01] So, in Australia, for example, we have a couple dozen Event Partners that will actually host the competition. And what they do is they work with the facility, which is often a school. Our program doesn’t believe in very expensive venues except for our national and world championships, we tend to go big for those. But they’re often in a school. So, the Event Partner recruits the volunteers, they recruit the referees, they recruit the judges. And, of course, we have very strong guidelines on how they have to be trained and acting.

Dan Mantz: [00:29:33] But they also keep the registration fee. So, most events have a token registration fee. In the U.S., it averages about $55 per team. So, not super expensive. But the REC Foundation doesn’t keep the revenue. We rely on our Event Partners. So, we have, basically, this massive network of 3,000 events that are run by volunteers, for a better word. And our events tend to be 30 to 40 teams because of the price cost being so low. Teams compete an average of five or six times. And the REC Foundation oversees it all.

Dan Mantz: [00:30:06] And then, we have our national championships. The national championship in Australia is absolutely a spectacle. It’s a fantastic event. But that’s where we start bringing in corporate sponsors, you know, SMC, for example, that was a sponsor in Australia. And I know our Australia team would be very mad at me right now because I don’t know all the Australian sponsors. But globally, Northrop Grumman Foundation, Google, Dell, Tesla, and Texas Instruments, and NASA are our biggest sponsors.

Dan Mantz: [00:30:31] But anyway, so we culminate in these and they’re in-person. So, at VEX worlds, we have teams from 50 countries competing. We have over 30,000 competitors. They’re from all over. But you’re bringing in your robot, you’re physically competing on the field. And that’s how we ran our organization. And then, all of a sudden the pandemic hit and everything had to change, right?

Peter Dalmaris: [00:30:55] So, what happened during the pandemic? I guess, in the beginning, we think we’re a bit uncertain about how long it’s going to last and what does it mean? Should we cancel, postpone, change? What was it like for the REC Foundation at that point?

Dan Mantz: [00:31:12] Well, it was very stressful. I’ll start by saying it was very stressful. I mean, we were monitoring it in January of 2020. With the REC Foundation as me as CEO, one of the things I decided to do is always defer to the guidelines of the country, of the state, or even at the local level. So, we were still having in-person events. By the end of February, there was travel restrictions everywhere. But by then, we were able to finish about 95 percent of our season. But we did have to cancel our VEX Robotics Championship that was scheduled for Louisville, Kentucky in April of 2020.

Dan Mantz: [00:31:49] So, we had a celebration. We did a lot of virtual events. We gave out awards. But even though things look like they were getting a bit better, we realized by midsummer – we’re realistic – that we were still not going to have a lot of in-person competitions for that calendar year. Now, we were hopeful that things might change for 2021. But we knew in 2020, it was unlikely that there would be a lot of travel. Some countries were better than other. New Zealand, for example, had a lot of in-person competitions, but it depended. But, again, what I was saying earlier is, we know how important it is for the students to play with their robots and to compete with other students and against other students.

Dan Mantz: [00:32:30] So, we made a very strong decision to develop infrastructure, a peer-to-peer infrastructure, and to modify our game so that we could connect teams from across the globe. And we have the brainstorm concept in late July. And then, by October, we had practice matches. So, that first practice match in early October was run out of the REC Foundation here in the Dallas, Texas area. And we connected three local schools in the REC Foundation. So, four fields, and we connected it and we actually ran some matches. By November, we were actually running real competitions. Our first competition had United Arab Emirates, Turkey, California, Kansas, Canada. And we still had some bugs.

Dan Mantz: [00:33:16] So, one of the things we originally did was a huge peer-to-peer network. But that’s a lot of connections with a lot of computers, so we streamlined the video feed. And then, by early January, we had a pretty robust system. So, in January, even though within the United States, we had pockets of places opening up. We knew that it wasn’t likely that international teams were going to be able to travel to the United States for our world championship in April. And even within the U.S., we knew that places like the Pacific Northwest, Washington, Oregon, California, and the Northeast, like Massachusetts, the New England area, we knew they weren’t going to come.

Dan Mantz: [00:33:52] So, we made the very, very difficult decision of canceling our in-person worlds. But we didn’t cancel VEX worlds. We decided to double down on this live remote technology platform. And we said we’re going to pivot and we’re going to have a live remote tournament, VEX Robotics World Championships. So, we sent a requirement. So, this past year, our registration was down, but we’re still over 12,000 teams. And we said, if you want the chance to compete at VEX worlds, you need to sign up for one or two live remote tournaments. And, literally, it was fantastic. So, we had Australia competing against California. We had New Zealand competing against Texas. In any given event, and we hosted 20, 30 events a week, we had teams from all over the world competing.

Dan Mantz: [00:34:35] And so, by the time we got to our world championship, which we delayed a month, we had it in May instead of April to give teams more time to get experience. We culminated last week with the world’s largest remote robotics tournament. So, we had almost 1,700 teams. I think we ended up at 1,690 teams competed from 35 countries. And they competed doing real robotics. So, how it works is, each team has a field. That was one thing that changed a little bit, is, every team had to have their own field. And they were connected with a laptop and a camera. And we connected the robots. So, we still started and stopped the robots remotely. And we had control centers all throughout our offices here in Greenville, Texas. And we started and stopped. And we had judging.

Dan Mantz: [00:35:24] I mean, one of the things we had to change is how we do judging. So, we went from in-person judging to remote judging. Our engineering design notebooks, which were physical notebooks, we allowed electronic notebooks. The game, which was a kind of a back and forth game, we changed it to a scoring game. And at the end of the two weeks, we crowned multiple world champions. And I’ll tell you what, the level of the competition was exciting. It was as good as an in-person event. It wasn’t the same experience. But because of the chats that we developed and all that other stuff, students still talk to other students. They had to collaborate. Our world champions of all won world championships by collaborating with their partners.

Dan Mantz: [00:36:04] So, we really were able to replicate an in-person event and have it remotely. And it wasn’t virtual. It was remote because it was real robots on real fields using real game elements. There was nothing virtual about it. It was a real robotics event. And we were recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as having the largest remote robotics tournament of all time. So, we ended up having about 13,000 participants and, again, about 1,690 teams, I think, was our final team.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:36:32] It’s amazing especially how quickly you were able to implement that. I’m just looking at the website, roboticseducation.org. There’s information about the various types of competition. And the one that you’ve been talking about, I believe, is the Life Remote World Championship. And that said 2021, which is coming up in this video. So, for anyone curious about how that actually looks like, you can go to that page. Just go to roboticseducation.org then look for Live Remote, and you get a lot of information about it there.

Dan Mantz: [00:37:05] Yeah. One of the things we wanted to do is make sure the students had a great experience. So, we still brought in a high tech audio visual company. We created a studio with all the lights and bells and whistles. And we had recaps every morning and afternoon where we highlighted teams. We had opening ceremonies where we recognize – it’s called – our flag of nations where every team that’s participating from every country is recognized. We had an awards ceremony. We announced next year’s game. We even had a fun meme contest. Every students were able to submit memes. So, we added a lot of the pizzazz that you have in an in-person event.

Dan Mantz: [00:37:44] And most importantly is we encouraged the students to interact with each other. And, honestly, right before we got on this call, I was meeting with our student advisory board. So, I have 12 students selected from across the globe. Matter of fact, one of our students is from Australia and he was on the call. And we asked them what their experience was. And they said a lot of people were skeptical going in. And we’re talking teenagers, right? So, they’re always skeptical. But it was universally well-praised because it did what we needed. It gave students some excitement. It gave them an opportunity to interact.

Dan Mantz: [00:38:16] And it’s never going to replace an in-person tournament, but it is going to complement it. We think our live remote technology is here to stay. It allows us to reach places that can’t travel. And they can still now participate in robotics. So, it was a lot of work. We did it in nine months and we did it with two developers.

Dan Mantz: [00:38:35] So, one of the things that REC Foundation did is, we took a lot of our staff that their skill sets weren’t being utilized. People, for example, in the operations team, the warehouse, the shipping, we took people that did documents, and we taught them the new skills to run all these events, too. So, the REC Foundation really, really pivoted to use our staff. We only needed two professional developers and we ran most of the events ourselves. Again, we transformed how we do judging.

Dan Mantz: [00:39:05] We also offered online challenges for those students that were just not going to be able to compete in robotics at all. We provided online challenges so students could still do STEM activities and compete in activities. And then, even our drones program, we pivoted our drones program to add a virtual. So, this one was virtual. It was basically enhancing your programing skills.

Dan Mantz: [00:39:27] And then, our partner, VEX Robotics, they released for free VEXcode VR, and it was for students to learn coding. And at last check, over 1.6 million students across the globe, 1.6 million unique students, have used VEXcode VR to improve their coding skills. And they’ve written 95,000 – 95 million – not thousand – 95 million programs have been written through VEXcode VR.

Dan Mantz: [00:39:55] So, again, we did something unique that was unprecedented. And, honestly, that was the right word with the competition. But we also provided online resources such as coding and STEM activities for those students too.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:40:10] That’s amazing. So, if I understand right, the drone VR program from VEX Robotics – if I understand right – you fly a drone in a virtual simulated environment, right? It’s not a real drone that flies in the oval here nearby. It flies in virtual world, but the program is the same. You can take the same program and upload it onto a quadcopter and the effect would be the same. Am I understanding correctly?

Dan Mantz: [00:40:38] Yes. So, we actually have three drones programs, to be honest with you. And the first one is our RADC, so that’s our drones competition. That’s a physical drone. And, actually, we partner with For the Win on that one. It’s not a VEX product. Then, we have our BELL Vertical Robotics Challenge, which is a helicopter drone project. And that’s where, actually, it’s very large drones and they do multiple missions. But the one that we’re specifically talking about is VRAD, which is our virtual drones, and that’s exactly what they do with it. It’s a 3D environment. They’re giving a basic drone and they have to program it. And so, if they program it to go faster, then it’s a little bit harder to control. So, the better you’re programing, the more skills that you can do.

Dan Mantz: [00:41:23] And that was something we quickly developed. Our partner for that one was Robotify out of Ireland. So, we didn’t develop that ourselves. We partnered with Robotify. And, again, it was a way for students to actually improve their programing and coding skills and still have a lot of fun. And we had a world championship for VRAD too. Actually, the top teams from around the world competed and they had coding challenges and had to fly their drones for missions. And it was super successful. And just like in-person robotics, attendance was down this year. But our in-person drones programs are still thriving.

Dan Mantz: [00:41:59] And so, I think everybody knows what a drone is, but our in-person drones is like doing rescue missions and flying through hoops, and speed, and maneuverability. So, all those programs existed. But the Live Remote for our VEX Robotics program and then our virtual drones program were probably the two that we adapted most for COVID.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:42:20] Yeah. It looks amazing. I’m looking at the VRAD Martian Survival Challenge. That was the theme.

Dan Mantz: [00:42:29] Yeah. So, we found Robotify, and that was good. But then, we wanted to be able to develop a nice challenge. And, of course, all that stuff costs money. And it was great because NASA actually came through and gave us some funding to help develop that program. And, again, that’s going to come back. We think one of the things we learned is all the programing was in Python. And that was a little bit advanced because on our VEX Robotics competitions, we can start with block programing before you go to Python, or C++, or some of the more advanced languages. But every student has the opportunity to start with block programing.

Dan Mantz: [00:43:06] So, for a year or two for VRAD, we’re going to have the same option where you can start with block coding. And then, as you get more comfortable, then you can switch over to Python. So, a year or two will even be more fun than it was in year one. Because, you know, all the things we learned from COVID, from the global pandemic, there’s a lot of things we learned that will transform the REC foundation.

Dan Mantz: [00:43:27] I think the example I like to give the most is the engineering notebook. I’m a big believer in the engineering design process. It’s a core part of our program. You can’t win any awards without doing a design notebook. And I’ll be honest with you, I was stubborn. I was saying that we needed the physical notebooks because I personally believe writing things down is important. But we couldn’t do that. Exactly. You have one here and mine is right here. Exactly.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:43:53] All those paper.

Dan Mantz: [00:43:54] And so, maybe we’re showing our age, but I think that design notebooks are really important. But we couldn’t collect notebooks. We couldn’t do judging with physical notebooks. So, we did do online notebooks, digital notebooks, and we added time stamping. Because the one thing we don’t want is students to write their notebooks in the last 48 hours, right? It needs to be every meeting you do it. So, we timestamp them. But then, the judges, because it was all digital, so instead of the judges doing all the judging of the notebooks and interviews the day of the competition, they’re like, “Well, they’re digital.” So, now, they’re judging on Tuesday and Wednesday. So, when the event happened, that part was out of the way.

Dan Mantz: [00:44:32] So, I don’t think we’ll go back from that. I think we’ll always now allow the option of remote judging and remote notebooks. And, again, I don’t think our virtual RAD will go away. I know the VEXcode VR program, you know, VEX when they launched that, it was some basic coding and then they created all these really cool activities like an underwater activity. So, I do think that, fundamentally, the pandemic, while none of us wish it would have happened, made us reflect on what we did and make some changes that, honestly, will allow us to reach more students.

Dan Mantz: [00:45:02] I mean, LRT will allow us to reach areas where students can’t travel. I think it would allow us to give. We’ve probably started VEX teams on 20 countries in Africa, but maybe only three or four have ever traveled to a competition. So, now all those countries will be able to compete. And more and more students will be able to do drones because of this. So, we fundamentally had to pivot and adapt because of the pandemic. But that’s what we ask of our students, too, right? We ask them to to pivot and look at the design process and make improvements. And it forced the REC Foundation to do the same thing.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:45:40] Lead by example. Okay. I’ve got two questions left.

Dan Mantz: [00:45:43] Okay.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:45:43] The first one is, is that a popcorn machine in the corner behind you?

Dan Mantz: [00:45:51] Peter it is. And the funny thing is, I normally have a jukebox there. So, I joined the REC Foundation four years ago. Prior to that, I was president of a company called Rack Solutions. We made data center products, so we did engineering design and manufacturing right here in the U.S. We were leading supplier of data center racks. And when I took the job at the REC Foundation, as a thank you gift, they bought me a jukebox and that’s normally what sits in the corner. But for VEX worlds, I actually took it out of the office and we put it in, like, our lounge area so that everybody can enjoy it. But for the call today, I didn’t want that empty space there. So, I have a popcorn machine. I also have gumball machines in my office, too. I try to make it a little fun.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:46:30] It’s very interesting. Normally, people have books and things like that, degrees. But I like what you’ve got there. I’ll take your example and do something interesting with my background.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:46:39] The second question is – and you really have covered a lot of it – I want to look into the future of the REC Foundation. I will say that I do expect a drone, a student designed drone on Mars sometime in the future. NASA has done it. But I think you guys can do it one day. So, what is the future like, say, in 2021, so the near future. Maybe looking a couple of years because you’ve got so much that you have created. You’ve changed so much in the foundation. I guess, will you deploy and then kind of take a step back to see how people react to all this, which is a very rich offering of programs, competitions, and education? Or do you have even more new things in the pipeline?

Dan Mantz: [00:47:35] Well, so my staff will tell you that I’m a very aggressive CEO. When I joined the REC Foundation, we had VEX Robotics for middle school and high school, and VEX IQ for elementary and middle, and we had a couple other things. And now we have dozens and dozens of programs. One of the things about partnering with VEX Robotics to run their competitions is we get to work with them on what we think the STEM community needs.

Dan Mantz: [00:48:00] So, one of the things I think your audience will be really excited about is we piloted in the middle of the pandemic our AI competition. So, it’s the VEX AI Competition. And that’s hands-off. That’s where the students build and program two robots, and there’s vision on there, there’s GPS sensors. And, basically, students are doing AI. They’re detecting field and game elements, deciding how to score, how to prevent scoring. So, we did the pilot program last year with 60 teams and that will be one of our premier featured new programs for the 2021-2022.

Dan Mantz: [00:48:35] On the other side of the spectrum, one of the things I’m super excited about is our new VEX GO competition, that’s geared for early elementary. And it’s not about winning or anything like that. It’s about building a robot to accomplish as many tasks as you can. And they’re very simple. But the key is, first, you build the mechanisms, then you add power. And the programing is optional. Because I think across the globe, so many students spend so much time on computers that they don’t build as much. And I think the VEX GO program really addresses that, where students really build, and they play, and they have fun.

Dan Mantz: [00:49:12] And then, my personal very favorite program that we also launched last year during the pandemic is the Factory Automation competition. So, for your audience, they should know that I spent over 20 years at FANUC Robotics. FANUC is the largest industrial robotics company in the world. Matter of fact, the first time I’d ever been to Australia was to do a project at GM Holden in Australia. But I spent 20 years at FANUC and, again, what I’ve said earlier, I believe the emphasis shouldn’t be just on STEM, it should be on workforce development.

Dan Mantz: [00:49:44] So, with the permission of the board and the partnership with VEX and with a grant from the Department of Defense, we were able to, over the last two years, develop a competition where students build small robots. And they’re not large robots like FANUC. They’re small robots, and they build conveyor systems, and we have STEM Labs and instruction that goes with all of it. And at the end, it’s a basically – what I would call – a palletizing competition. It very much mimics like an Amazon workshop. But the students basically build robots and conveyors to move packages as quickly as possible.

Dan Mantz: [00:50:19] So, our workforce development programs will be key, very centered to what we do in the next couple of years. So, early STEM programs with Mexico, advance with VEX AI competition, workforce development, and then, of course, drones. Because I think drones is also very important to our strategy. Because there are students that don’t want to do mobile robotics, but everybody wants to fly a drone. So, students do drones and they add sensors, whether it’s a camera. And, of course, they have to program it, so reaching even more students and teaching them the STEM and technology skills.

Dan Mantz: [00:50:56] And then, of course, I do expect to have very ambitious plans that are VEX Robotics competition and our VEX IQ competition. They’re already one of the largest competitions in the world, close to 30,000 teams. But I really do expect those competitions to continue to grow until we’re easily the largest competition in the world.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:51:16] Wow. Yeah. I can see it there. You’re getting there. I think the array of opportunities that you have for young people is just impressive. And the fact that it’s now accessible more than ever before, in an ironic way thanks to a pandemic, but they happened. It’s just to show that there’s so much opportunity these days for people anywhere in the world to learn and to get all sorts of skills that are also connected to industry.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:51:46] So, thank you for taking the time then to give us this very thorough, detailed presentation of what the REC Foundation does. I also want to mention the REC Foundation website at roboticseducation.org is very detailed. So, everything that you talked about is documented. Just go to the website. If anyone wants to get more information, who can they get in touch with in the foundation, yourself, someone else you recommend?

Dan Mantz: [00:52:15] Yeah. So, roboticseducation.org, there is a an About and then there’s a Contact. And so, your global audience, if you go to the resources, so its robotevents.com/support, you can get there through roboticseducation.org. Or you can type in robotevents.com/support, and there’s a global map. So, you can click on your country, and within the country, the territories within the country. And when you click on that, it’ll actually give you the contact information. So, I just clicked on Australia and it’s Jessica McGaffin. She’s fantastic. Everybody in Australia will absolutely love her. She does amazing things for robotics in Australia. And so, it gives you the email address as well as the telephone number. But, again, any country in the world, when you click on it, you’ll find your person.

Dan Mantz: [00:53:02] And I also encourage the audience to go to vexrobotics.com too. So, while we do more than just VEX Robotics programs, it is our biggest program. And the thing about VEX Robotics is their resources are unmatched. So, when you go to VEX Robotics and you start navigating the website, you’re going to find some of those free educational resources that are amazing. You’ll have a link to the VEX Robotics knowledge base, which will give you all kinds of good engineering and programing support. And, also, you’ll see some fun stuff that they have too.

Dan Mantz: [00:53:34] So, I really appreciate you asking that question. So, vexrobotics.com, roboticseducation.org, between that, you’ll definitely be able to get the contact. And we really hope more programs will join us. We’re super excited. This is, like I said earlier, a global language. And there’s nothing more fun than going to an event and meeting students from Russia, China, Kazakhstan, of course, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Central America. It’s so much fun, but it’s most fun to watch the students smile as they build their robots. And even the teams that maybe don’t have the best competitive robot are still having a great time. And when I see the smiles, I know that we’re doing something special.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:54:16] Perfect. Well, thank you very much then. It was amazing.

Dan Mantz: [00:54:21] But thank you. I really appreciate the opportunity. And maybe we’ll talk in another year and I can give you an update on what else we’re doing.

Peter Dalmaris: [00:54:27] I’d love that.

Dan Mantz: [00:54:28] Super. Thank you so much, Peter.


Tags

Podcast, Robotics, STEM, STEM Education, Stemiverse


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