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JCPenney seeks support for FIRST teams in Henry

By Johnny Jackson

jjackson@henryherald.com

Michael Hall is hopeful he has made headway in galvanizing support for robotics engineering as a bona fide extracurricular activity.

On Friday, Hall chartered a busload of about 50 Henry County students, educators and business leaders to downtown Atlanta to witness the 19th Annual FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Championship, a not-for-profit international robotics competition held at the Georgia Dome.

Hall, manager of the JCPenney store at South Point Shopping Center in McDonough, wants to bring more attention to FIRST, as a potential extracurricular program for area schools.

"It's a very valuable program, and I think our county supports it," Hall said. His store already sponsors two schools in Henry County -- a FIRST Robotics team at Luella High School, and a FIRST LEGO League team at Bethlehem Elementary School, both schools are in the Locust Grove community.

Hall said his goal with Friday's trip was to make FIRST fans of the business leaders and educators in Henry County, to get them involved in sponsoring FIRST teams in the county.

"The purpose of the trip was twofold," he said. "Our goal at JCPenney has always been giving kids something to do after school. Not everybody is cut out to play sports, and FIRST is something everybody can do. And, it lines up with a great need in our society, now -- education in math and science."

Hall said JCPenney has been able to collect nearly $30,000 over the past year to sponsor FIRST programs at Luella High and Bethlehem Elementary. The retailer raised the money through its round-up program, which allows customers to round their purchases up to the next whole dollar. The difference goes to fund local FIRST teams.

JCPenney also sells Hexbugs toy robots, which cost between $10 and $25 each, he said, adding that 100 percent of those proceeds go to funding local FIRST teams.

Hall said it takes less than $1,000 to fund FIRST at elementary schools. However, high school programs can be costly to start up -- between $10,000 and $25,000 per program. He noted that JCPenney's fund-raising efforts have the capacity to earn about $25,000 a year.

Gail Chapman, a computer programming teacher at Luella High, said she believes the FIRST program is worth its time and effort. She heads her school's FIRST Robotics team.

"I knew I had a lot of students in my programming class that would love it, and I knew it would be a good opportunity for them," said Chapman. "I fortunately found two math teachers at the school that had a background in engineering."

Though Luella High failed to place at the 2010 FIRST Peachtree Regional Robotics Competition at Gwinnett Center back in March, Chapman believes much progress has been made.

"Being our first year, we learned a lot going through this process," Chapman said. "You don't know what to expect going into it. [But] the students were incredible. They came in before school and after school. They basically built the robot, and I'm so proud of that."

Chapman, and 11 students on the 14-member FIRST Robotics team at Luella High, were on Friday's trip to the FIRST Championship in Atlanta. They are the first public school team in Henry County to have taken part in FIRST competition at the regional level, according to John Uesseler, Henry's coordinator for Career, Technical & Agricultural Education (CTAE).

"The only school that has participated in the FIRST competition at the regional level is Luella High," Uesseler said. "But, we hope to expand this opportunity to other schools through the support of Mike Hall and JCPenney."

"The First Robotics Competition was quite impressive," added June Wood, chairperson of the Henry County Chamber of Commerce Education Committee.

"Mike Hall's and JCPenney's support of this project is commendable, and very much appreciated," Wood said. "The competition really highlighted how students may actively develop enhanced math and science skills in a modern way."

Wood noted that the competition involved elements of communication, finance, teamwork, marketing, and physical exercise. "It would be great if other Henry County businesses united with JCPenney to expand this experience to some other schools within Henry County," Wood said.

"This is a great way to get our Henry County students more engaged to strengthen math and science skills, as well as another opportunity to bring the community together for an academic rally."