Like a small bee swarm, the Basic High School robotics team descends on physics teacher Mark Reed’s classroom. They push desks to the periphery, lay out plastic tubing and wood panels, and puzzle over how to conjure a ring like those used at the VEX Robotics Competition, their Super Bowl. The moment a functional square takes shape, some abandon the construction work and start running their ’bots through drills.
In a corner near the door, Reed catches up with Rick Stater, plant manager at Tronox, a titanium processing facility located in Henderson’s industrial zone. How many kids are showing up lately, Stater wonders. (About a dozen.) How did they do in the March competition? (Won some; lost some.) His interest is more than casual. Tronox is one of the team’s three major sponsors, providing funds for robots, competition fees and other necessities, and Stater has a lot to do with that.
Someone shoves a joystick into his hand; senior Jasmine Breciado, one of the four members of Team A, takes another. Before you know it, Breciado and Stater, who’s never seen Team A’s robot before today (and who’s a chemical engineer), are controlling its locomotion and mechanical arm, respectively. Within minutes, Stater has the robot picking up plastic red balls and putting them in marked spots. He falls easily into the team’s cheerfully focused mode. It illustrates something he’d said an hour earlier, sitting in a company conference room: It doesn’t matter how students learn science, so long as they learn it; it’ll apply to whatever specialty they choose later on. That’s why Stater got involved in robotics programs at three Henderson schools. He’d learned that Robert L. Taylor Elementary had a robotics class and could use help with it. He responded by writing checks, but soon felt that wasn’t enough.
With Tronox making headlines lately for less humanitarian efforts (it recently settled bankruptcy litigation, related to toxic dumping, with Anadarko Petroleum, which acquired former Tronox parent company Kerr-McGee in 2006), it would be easy to write off Stater’s efforts as whitewashing his company’s polluted past. But at Basic High, his interest seems genuine. “It’s not enough to check a box on your company forms that says, ‘Yeah, we contribute. We gave you $2,000, now go away,’” he says. “That’s why we got our employees involved.” In 2012, he persuaded two staff members to help — on paid company time — with Taylor’s after-school robotics club; last year, he added another at B. Mahlon Brown Junior High. Their hope, shared by Reed, is to spark interest early, so that by high school, kids are comfortable with the STEM skills robotics fosters. “The biggest thing, I think, that helps the kids is our ability to trouble-shoot,” says Tronox Senior Process Engineer Kevin McIntosh, a Taylor volunteer. “And also their self-confidence.” “Tronox has been so awesome,” Reed says of the company’s sponsorship, which covers all the club’s costs. He plans to triple the number of teams at next year’s VOX competition, from two to six.
Stater has personal motivation, too. The youngest of 10 children, his father died when he was 12 years old, leaving his mother a single parent. He quickly figured out that if help wasn’t available at home, he’d have to get it at school. He may also have a sense of unfinished business as a parent, acknowledging that neither of his two children, now grown and in the real-estate business, showed an interest in science and math. “A lot of (local) kids are coming out of high school without competency in math and science,” Stater says. “They may want to go into it in college, but then it’s too late to catch up. We want to help prevent that.”