Northwest Arkansas Education Service Cooperative considers starting a regional robotics training center

Instructor Billy Graham (center) controls an industrial robot ABB 120 in the Electronics Lab at Northwest Technical Institute in Springdale. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/FILE PHOTO)

FARMINGTON -- A proposed regional effort to train both adults and high school students how to program, operate and fix advanced industrial robots met with interest from the board of the Northwest Arkansas Education Service Cooperative on Thursday.

Starlinda Sanders, career and technical education coordinator for the cooperative, presented the idea to the board at its meeting Thursday at the cooperative's headquarters in Farmington.

She said the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce approached the cooperative about the idea. Chamber President Steve Clark confirmed Thursday afternoon he suggested a partnership between the chamber and the schools to increase the scope of a robotics training program the chamber runs in Fayetteville.

Seventeen school districts from Benton, Washington and Madison counties make up the cooperative. Bryan Law, cooperative director, said there is no preferred location for a robotics center picked yet.

Gravette School District Superintendent Maribel Childress pointed out "my students would have to drive an hour" to get to a center located in Farmington, for instance. She asked if two centers were needed.

"Honest to goodness, we probably need three," Law replied, but the logistics of setting up and paying for even one still need working out, he said.

The cooperative has had interest in such a regional training program for at least 10 years, Law said.

"The problem was logistics then, and it's logistics now," he said.

The growth in the region makes the project more viable, Law said in an interview after the board meeting.

The districts would need to come up with $52,000 the first year a center operated and $42,000 the second, Sanders projected. The districts would also have to provide a facility, she said.

"Having a trained workforce in this region would sure make the job of an economic developer easier," Clark said when asked why the chamber was interested. Training workers outside Fayetteville would help the economy by increasing the supply of these technicians within driving distance.

"I don't care if they live in Gravette or Greenland or Elkins," he said. "'Trained workforce's are the magic words for attracting an industry."