Pa. Rural Robotics Initiative Finds a New Home In Franklin

| June 23, 2022

FRANKLIN, Pa. (EYT) – In 2021, the Pennsylvania Rural Robotics Initiative found its new home in a historic building with good bones that just needed some TLC.

(PHOTO: Steve Cutchall, the new program manager for the Innovation Institute For Tomorrow, works with some kids in the new space that will be the new institute’s home. Photo and article by Richard Sayer of Eight & 322.)

“The Franklin,” an old vacant hotel and event venue, was just bought, and the owner wanted it to be an investment into the future.

Tim Heffernan’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) initiative was looking for a place to hang a shingle and it seemed like the two were meant to be together.

Not all dreams come true.

After some extensive roofing repairs, the building project kept evolving slowly, and at one point, something shifted and it was looking like the fit wasn’t a marriage made in heaven. Heffernan took a few days off as he stood in a trout fishing stream many miles away. He got a phone call that the building had been put back on the market.

What may have seemed like a devastating road block to his endeavor to build an institute for the future of technology, may have, in fact, been a blessing in disguise.

Around this same time, a few blocks away, the Franklin Masonic Lodge, which occupied the upper floors above the Franklin Chamber of Commerce, was moving out as they merged with the Oil City lodge.

Coincidence… serendipity… fate?

Turns out the spacious second and third floors of the building might actually be a better fit for the initiative.

“There is so much room up there,” Heffernam said. “In The Franklin building they had a pretty large ballroom space, but the rooms for work stations needed for robotics competitions and training would be on different floors and disconnected. In the new space, the large rooms are on the same floor.”

What Heffernan is building is a STEM based center for robotics, information technology, drone programing, and coding for kids that is unlike anything in Northwest Pennsylvania.

“Other than Pittsburgh, I can’t think of any place like this,” he said.

Working under the monicker of the Innovation Institute for Tomorrow, Heffernan’s center is getting a lot of state and national attention. Working with 25 school districts across eight counties, the institute has been providing robotics supplies and tools as well as training for a few years now.

Heffernan said being able to have a home will increase his efforts towards growth and provide more opportunities for kids in these rural areas.

“If we can just break down the barriers for these kids,” he said. “Emphasizing the need to provide the necessary tools and research to these kids is much needed for our region.”

Monday night, Heffernan’s board of directors agreed that the former Masonic lodge space will be the future of the Innovation Institute for Tomorrow for at least the next ten years.

Understanding the growing need for STEM based education, the goal of this new home is to be a center for after school programming, eventually. Heffernan said it will be a space for kids to come and enhance what they are or are not getting in school. He hopes to have daily defined after school workshops by the fall in the new space.

He wants this to be a place for students to learn and explore the possibilities STEM careers can have.

The institute has received a multiple high level prestigious grants to further their programming, including PAsmart grants from the Pennsylvania Department of Education. The first of these grants was used to provide schools with materials needed to start or further robotics programming, and the second was to train educators to help students advance and use these tools.

The institute recently received another grant in combination with the Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, Carnegie Mellon University, and the IU 13 to advance STEM based programming in the area. They also have received $25,000 from the McElhatten Foundation, who has been keeping a close eye on the institute’s progress the last few years.

Heffernan, now that he has a permanent base, is hoping to have a series of listening sessions and hopes to incorporate the community into this project as much as possible. He is planning a couple of STEM summits, bringing a couple hundred people to the area to advance STEM based education.

He said there are many people interested in this program for its potential to provide opportunities and tapping into resources that might not otherwise be found.

Heffernan said he is planning to move slowly to insure all the money is spent wisely. The new space is ready for much of the needs, some new carpeting, a few coats of paint, and new secure doors. He expects by the end of the summer the space will be a working space for kids.

Another step forward is the hiring of Steve Cutchall as the program manager.

“Getting Steve in here is huge,” Heffernan said. “This will allow him more time to work on building relationships and advancing the scope of the program.”


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