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Lisa Bayless (standing) talks with teachers practicing with robots in SARSEF’s Catalyst makerspace.

It’s no surprise to hear local realtor Lisa Bayless is supporting charity, as she donates a portion of every commission to local nonprofits as part of her “community first” program, and is on-track to hit $80,000 in donations by the end of the year. 

But her latest donation will allow teachers and students in six local schools to have first-hand experience with more than 500 robots, thanks to Bayless’ recent $25,000 gift to the nonprofit STEMAZing Project, which advocates for science education throughout Arizona. 

Four of the six schools are in the Amphitheater district: Copper Creek, Donaldson Elementary, Harelson Elementary and Innovation Academy. The new Dove Mountain CSTEM school in Marana Unified is also involved, as is Oyama Elementary in Tucson Unified. A total of 20 fourth- and fifth-grade teachers will take part in the project.

“My husband and I decided we wanted to support schools this year because of all the craziness that greatly impacted them over the last year. And we also feel strongly about STEM in elementary education,” Bayless said. “Of course we wanted to support schools, but we also believe a STEM education is crucial for how the world is developing. We want to position kids for success.” 

The program is a collaboration between the STEMAZing Project and the Southern Arizona Research, Science and Engineering Foundation, and will supply more than 500 Edison educational robots and supporting supplies, as well as two full days of professional-development training for the participating teachers.

While the STEMAZing Project supports science education and literacy, they do this by supplying and educating science teachers for a more productive classroom. 

“I’m still in shock,” said DaNel Hogan, director of The STEMAZing Project. “Teachers don’t typically get this kind of loot or support. Generally they get one thing or just a few. But now they’re also getting entire classroom sets of books. In a perfect world, this is what this program would look like. And in this case, it’s a perfect world.”

Hogan initially received a message through the STEMAZing website from Bayless’ husband, Jeff Stitt. At first she didn’t believe it, but she still followed up and their offer turned out to be real. Bayless and Stitt’s donation was originally planned to be $5,000. However, this gradually increased to $25,000 as STEMAZing scaled up the project for more opportunities to teachers and students. 

“We had 24 robots for a class, but that was almost like torture, because if we had 16, we’d have a robot for every two students, and if we had 32 there’d be one for each. So we went back and asked them for more to really do this right, and they said yes. I was in awe,” Hogan said. 

Teacher training with the robots is taking place over two Saturdays at SARSEF’s Catalyst location in the Tucson mall. At the trainings, local teachers learn the basics of the robots and how to best implement them for student learning. The first day allowed the teachers to familiarize themselves with the small, two-wheeled robots. The second day, the teachers worked to figure out engineering challenges they can recreate in the classroom, such as a robot missing a part and working around it. Bayless got to see the impact of her charity when she attended the first training session. 

“The teachers were incredibly grateful,” said Bayless, who refers to her donations as investments because she believes they make for a better community. “How enthusiastic they were to learn this and bring it into their classrooms was so moving. It’s just as important a boost to the teachers as it is to the kids.”

While Hogan hopes the project will result in more students interested in science, technology, engineering and math, she specifically hopes it will get more students interested in the realms of computer science and cybersecurity.

“Cybersecurity is one field where we need loads of support and workers. There are not nearly enough computer programmers in the field of cybersecurity,” Hogan said. “Programming and computer science is now and will continue to be one of the biggest areas of need. So the idea is to give students a really positive experience with computer programming early on so they can see themselves as someone who can do this type of work. We don’t expect all of them to love it, but some certainly will, and definitely more than if they didn’t have this experience early on.” 

Hogan says this donation will fund the pilot for the STEMAZing/SARSEF Elementary Edison Robotics project, and plans to bring it to more local schools in the coming years. 

“I’m overwhelmed by how generous this is,” Hogan said. “We’re excited someone is willing to invest in our teachers and students, especially right now. The best thing this program is doing has nothing to do with STEM, actually. It’s making all of the teachers involved feel valued and appreciated, and it’s giving them time to have fun and remember why they love teaching. Because right now teachers are not doing OK, and the most important thing we can do is provide them with a morale boost.”