WASHINGTON – Northeast Community College will play a key role in a new $25 million project to help Nebraska become a national leader in robotic technologies and automation in manufacturing and agriculture.
Northeast is one of six partners in the Heartland Robotics Cluster funded by the US Economic Development Administration (EDA) through its Build Back Better Regional Challenge program. President Joe Biden announced at the White House Friday morning 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 Department of Commerce’s EDA, the Regional Challenge provides each awardee with funds to rebuild regional economies, promote an inclusive and equitable recovery, and create thousands of well-paying jobs in emerging industries like clean Energy, next generation manufacturing and biotechnology. The 21 programs were from an initial pool of 529 applicants.
Northeast will receive approximately $4.6 million of the $25 million Heartland Robotics Cluster total grant – $3.4 million to develop a manufacturing laboratory in downtown Norfolk and $1.2 million for creating a two-year robotics/automation curriculum and technology outreach program. It is the largest federal grant Northeast has ever received.
The manufacturing lab will cater to the labor needs of local and regional manufacturers, many of whom make products and serve customers that support the agriculture industry. The Fab Lab will also create an environment where ideas are shared and made a reality through applied technologies, economic and community development, business and industry training and personal development.
Once renovated, the downtown Norfolk space will feature high-tech equipment and a 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 usage options, and accommodate student robot use.
Other partners in the Heartland Robotics Cluster include 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 acts as the leader of the cluster.
“The Build Back Better Regional Challenge places community and equity at the heart of its design. With this grant, technology development, community revitalization and job creation go hand-in-hand,” said Gina Raimondo, US Secretary of Commerce. “Invest Nebraska Corporation and its coalition partners will drive technological innovation across the state to strengthen our nation’s food supply chain, support farm workers and accelerate technology.”
2nd District Assemblyman Don Bacon said the grant would support cluster members in their role in revitalizing the state’s rural workforce, which he describes as a key component of the country’s food supply chain.
“As a member of the House Agriculture Committee, I hear regularly from our agricultural producers about the growing need to develop more robotic technology and factory automation,” Bacon said.
Shanelle Grudzinski, Northeast’s dean of applied technology, said the college is “extremely excited” to be working with Invest Nebraska and others who share a vision of looking at rural vitality and community growth through a different lens.
“An innovative approach to embracing interdisciplinary boundaries and programs alongside the community, the Northeast Community College Fabrication Lab is being built in the heart of downtown Norfolk to help stimulate the entrepreneurial ecosystem and expand educational opportunities for a diverse range of groups from K-12 students to sophomores and four-year college students to established workers and the wider community,” Grudzinski said. “It’s an opportunity to combine resources, knowledge and local talent while offering affordable and accessible manufacturing and creative tools that enable individuals to invent, prototype, problem solve and produce as we work together to solve the challenges of the workforce and… to address economic development opportunities.”
Developing a robotics/automation curriculum at Northeast will not be a one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, it will be designed to meet the needs of people development as well as the needs of individuals interested in exploring and pursuing careers in this field. The Human Development focus area consists of certification courses in a variety of career areas. The undergraduate robotics curriculum will offer courses that are research-backed and incorporate real-world contextual applications to help individuals understand why they are learning the concepts; guidance on programming behaviors; challenges to apply their knowledge; and use of knowledge tests.
“It is exciting news to receive the Heartland Robotic Cluster Award. It will play a critical role in the prospects of robotics for our rural Nebraska communities, particularly the outreach plan that focuses on underserved populations,” said Shubha Krishnamurthy, Northeast’s information technology program director.
“It opens up a world of opportunities for our employees to try the latest and greatest in automation and create some innovative solutions in their businesses. I’m thrilled to be part of this team and would love to explore all the limitless perspectives that it brings. I would like to invite all of our students and companies to make the most of it,” said Krishnamurthy.
Throughout the development effort, Northeast will work with Metro Community College in Omaha to share data to help strategically launch new programs or improve existing curricula. Sharing the results of this work with Nebraska’s other community colleges will ultimately ensure greater capacity statewide in preparing individuals for a skilled workforce.
In parallel with curriculum development, an outreach plan will be implemented based on input from community partners. As the plan develops, these events will include a new focus highlighting training and courses in robotics and automation – and how they create high-paying opportunities in government-owned manufacturing companies.
“The Heartland Robotics Cluster embodies the spirit of Nebraska—community, collaboration, rural vitality, and a ‘can-do’ attitude to address workforce challenges,” said Leah Barrett, President of Northeast.
Barrett recognized Dan Hoffman (CEO of Invest Nebraska) and Kent Warneke (director of grants at Northeast), both of whom “were masterful at bringing together organizations dedicated 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,” said Barrett.