For Dr. Shelly Gruenig, her dream of opening the STEAM Center for Excellence took one step closer to being a reality last week.
Gruenig, the executive director of R4 Creating, went to the Feb. 8 Sandoval County Commission meeting to ask for help in turning R4 Creating into a center for STEAM activities with workshops, competition space, warehouse space, performing space for performing arts and robotics.
Gruenig founded R4, originally known as the Rio Rancho Robo Runners, in 2005 and has been offering championship STEM/STEAM programming in Sandoval County at the career training center on Sara Road. She is focused on programs to build the young STEM/STEAM workforce, support educators with emerging technologies and to provide thought leadership in order to link industry with their future workforce. Now, she wants to expand to reach and teach even more children with a center in Rio Rancho that holds more students and technology.
At the county commission meeting, Gruenig asked for the county to serve as fiscal agent on behalf of R4 for any capital funds received during the 2023 legislative Session. Gruenig’s proposal asked for $325,000 in capital outlay to be used to purchase, improve and install equipment and furnishings, including information technology, for a robotics and STEAM Center of Excellence to assist youth and the community in science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics in Sandoval County. The motion was unanimously approved by the commission.
“This is critical; a lot of us up here are big supporters of STEM,” District 2 Commissioner Jay Block said after Gruenig’s presentation. “Technology is going to drive this century, it’s going to drive economic development, it’s going to drive jobs.”
Gruenig has been working on getting funding for three years, getting by with constant fundraising and sponsors. You can donate or become a sponsor by clicking here.
“This fiscal money will be the first time we’ve ever used any kind of government funds,” Gruenig said. “Everything we’ve ever done here, it’s been fundraising through the power of just other people hearing about what we’re doing and supporting us, which is really incredible. And I just have to specially thank the Sandoval County Commissioners because this whole project started three years ago and I’m just super excited. I’ve tried different means to find other people to support it in the way that they voted to support it this week. And so it just really means a lot to me. The state legislators all set aside some money to invest in this because many of them have been here and seen at the height of a day when there’s 30 or 40 kids here, you know, running around and doing their thing.”
Now that Sandoval County is involved, Gruenig expects the process of getting money from Santa Fe to her office in Rio Rancho to go a lot more smoothly.
“We have for sure gotten $150,000 in capital outlay,” Gruenig said. “I had requested at that meeting for up to $400,000. I have $75,000 of junior money that has been submitted for us. So the $150,00, yes, it’s there. I just needed a fiscal agent for that, which the county has agreed to be. That’s been a long road that I won’t bore you with, but it was like, people would tell you one thing and you know, government. Then they’d be like, ‘Oh, no, that doesn’t work, now you’ll have to redo that next year.’ Like you can’t even just redo it, you have to wait until the session is going on. So the day after that meeting, I ran up to Santa Fe, got all the signatures I needed on that $150,000 that was approved two years ago. And now that I have this relationship with the county, that money will start flowing and we’ll be able to utilize it for equipment and programs to grow this.”
R4 Creating, which has won multiple championships and awards, works to connect STEM educators with the necessary resources to prepare students ages 6-18 to enter the STEM Workforce Pipeline. R4 promotes the growth of STEM education and enrichment through its robotics teams and a Robotics Leadership Academy. Classes cost $175 per semester, but Gruenig said no child has ever been turned away from the program. She works tirelessly to raise money to make sure any student who wants it has access to the lessons learned at R4.
“I say it’s like at the intersection of where fun and learning collide. Because it is that right?,” Gruenig said. “It also it just takes more resources. We’ve been really fortunate to have a lot of really great volunteers over the years. Because it takes a whole staff of volunteers to supervise, make sure everybody’s safe and, especially around the machines and and not only just say fingers and toes, but also save hearts and minds and just helping them, but there’s so much reward from it.”
Gruenig said the program has been life-changing for many students. She shared the story of Derek, a student with dyslexia and ADHD who was failing out of school.
“His parents just really were struggling with like, ‘What do I do?’ you know, ‘This kid is so not motivated, so overwhelmed,'” Gruenig said. “He put his hands on a robot at one of our summer camps, and the rest is history. Like, all of a sudde,n that was his way to communicate with the world. And in fact, a few years ago he and I got flown out to Boston to the SolidWorks headquarters because he was named SolidWorks prodigy for the entire country. Here’s this kid that was flunking out of fifth grade and now all of a sudden, you know, he’s found a way to communicate. It’s where they come and find their people. It’s so much more than just the actual what they are learning, how to build a robot, right? So you know, with your own kids and just building their confidence and allowing them to explore learning and you know, failing forward is what I call it.”
R4 hasn’t just been life-changing; in some instances, the program has literally been life-saving.
“Every kid has their story and I’ve had, now this is really personal, over the years, I’ve had four kids come back after graduation and tell me, ‘I have plans to end my life,'” Gruenig said. “One of them, the first person that shared, he told me, ‘I’d been kicked out of Boy Scouts. I’ve been kicked out of school, I’ve been kicked out of Sunday school. It’s like when my mom brought me to you I had a plan. I was done. And for some reason, and I don’t know why to this day,’ he said, ‘you put up with me, you’ve put up with me and just kept pushing me.’ And he said, ‘I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for you.’ And I know it’s not just me. It’s me and a whole bunch of volunteers and people that just really care about kids.”