State Capitol. Photo by Markus Schmidt.
State Capitol. Photo by Markus Schmidt.

RICHMOND – A House panel on Tuesday unanimously backed legislation seeking to create a grant fund for STEM+C robotics competition teams in underserved public school divisions. If successful, SB 806, sponsored by Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, would fund qualifying schools with up to $10,000. 

Stanley told members of the House Education K-12 subcommittee that Virginia high school students asked him last summer to file a proposal on their behalf that builds on the Robots for Learning Pilot program the General Assembly first approved in 2018.

“They wanted to put in a bill that would make that program permanent, but also to make sure that the availability of those funds would be to schools that don’t have these programs,” Stanley said, referring to roughly 374 elementary, middle and high schools in the commonwealth with 60% or more of students qualifying for free/reduced lunch.

Stanley said that he told the students that he’d be willing to carry the legislation, but they would have to write it, and they would have to appear before the committee to advocate for the bill and talk about it. 

“These are kids, young people, mostly from affluent schools that have these robotics programs. They are very successful and they want to make robotics successful to all children throughout the commonwealth, regardless of that child’s ZIP code,” Stanley said.

One of these students is Kiran Sabharwal, a member of the robotics team at Deep Run High School in Henrico County who first joined a STEM+C competition team in fourth grade. She told the committee Tuesday that throughout her journey on various teams, she has learned how to design, code, build and drive a robot. 

“I’ve learned how to research effectively, how to talk to experts and how to adapt to a lot of failure,” Kiran said. “But more importantly, I’ve learned lessons that go far beyond robotics. I can confidently say that I am a better critical thinker, problem solver, collaborator, teammate and advocate because I am a member of a STEM+C competition team.”

Kiran called Stanley’s proposal an opportunity for students across the state to become engineers, scientists and coders, but also to help them become better communicators, problem solvers and collaborators. “While STEM+C programs are valuable, they are not available to many students,” she said.

Ellie Erwin, a junior at Richmond’s Thomas Jefferson High School and a member of her robotics club’s design and electrical team, said that her role has allowed her to learn how drill, work with wires, obtain key measurements and upload them to CAD (Computer Aided Design, a software that engineers use for drawings).  

“Robotics is not only important to me, but it is important to my team as well,” she told the committee. “Through robotics, we learn how to work together as a team and learn valuable skills in the field. So many of my teammates now want to work in a field when they’re older, and that is all owed to the robotics club.”

Unfortunately, school robotics teams cost money that many underserved schools don’t have, “and in many cases students and parents face a variety of obstacles that prevent them from being able to fully support robotics,” Ellie said.

And Sania Jain, a junior at Maggie Walker Governor’s School Richmond, said that she has not only been a member of her school’s robotics team, but that she has also been mentoring elementary school children to get them ready for competitions.

“It’s just astounding how much you can learn by being in a hands-on experience like this and become prepared to join the workforce. We learn so much about the real world of STEM and even advocacy,” Sania said. 

“I know I would have never gained the confidence to speak in front of you all if I had not been part of this robotics team,” she added. “On a competition team you learn a lot more than what can be taught in a classroom, and that opportunity is currently lacking in equality and access. The reason I came here before this school day was to come and convince you to allow all students in Virginia access to this amazing opportunity that I’m so lucky to have.”

The committee passed Stanley’s proposal by a 8-0 vote, referring it to the House Appropriations Committee. 

“All of us should be concerned that once these kids graduate from college that they stay with technology and not come to politics,” Stanley said, “because we’re doomed and we’d be out of our seats very quickly.”

* * *

House panel advances Suetterlein bill on special elections

Also Tuesday, another House panel backed a proposal seeking to prevent political toying with special elections in the state legislature. Senate Bill 944, sponsored by Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, would require certain vacancies in the House of Delegates or the state Senate to be filled within 30 days of a member’s departure or death. The measure already passed with unanimous bipartisan support in the state Senate last month.

Suetterlein’s legislation is aiming to ensure that a political leader cannot deny constituents their elected voice in the General Assembly by unnecessarily delaying a special election. Suetterlein filed a similar proposal last year, but at the time the committee decided to carry over the legislation to the 2023 session, allowing the Department of Elections enough time to provide feedback. 

“This is not a partisan thing, I believe everyone should get representation,” Suetterlein told members of a House Privileges and Elections subcommittee Tuesday. “We were able to get it through unanimously this year, and I hope we’re able to forward this so that no matter who is calling the special election, no one can delay filling a seat.”

Suetterlein decided to first file the bill for the previous legislative session because in early 2021, then-Gov. Ralph Northam waited until March that year to call for a special election to fill a vacancy left by Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Russell County, who had died unexpectedly due to complications from COVID-19 on New Year’s Day. Northam’s move left Chafin’s district without representation for the duration of that year’s legislative session.

“When Sen. Chafin passed away, there was not a timely effort, so I had the sad experience of hearing from his constituents for the duration of an entire session about how they didn’t understand why they didn’t have their own senator, why the election couldn’t be held and why their Senate seat couldn’t be filled until after the session had adjourned,” Suetterlein said.

“That ended up having a significant effect on both what came out of the Senate, it removed one of the most reliably Republican districts. The people in the coalfields were not very very excited to hear that there was a senator in Bristol and there was one from Roanoke, but we’re just sorry that you can’t have it,” he added. 

When Del. Ronnie Campbell, R-Rockbridge County, died in December, Gov. Glenn Youngkin set a special election for that month, resulting in Campbell’s wife, Ellen Campbell, filling the vacancy within 30 days. 

And in December 2020, Del. Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, announced plans to resign from the House of Delegates in order to focus full-time on her gubernatorial campaign. Less than four weeks later, Democrat Candi Mundon King defeated Republican Heather Mitchell in a special election, ensuring that the 2nd House District wasn’t left without representation during the 2021 General Assembly session.

“We routinely see that this can happen and does happen,” Suetterlein said Tuesday. His proposal passed by a 9-1 vote. 

* * *

Senate committee rejects O’Quinn bill to create nuclear reactor revenue-sharing agreement, advances Morefield effort to add coal mine methane to alternative energy list

The Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee on Tuesday by a 10-6 vote rejected a proposal that would have required the counties of Buchanan, Dickenson, Lee, Russell, Scott, Tazewell and Wise and the city of Norton to enter into a perpetual revenue-sharing agreement regarding a small modular reactor plant or facility to be located in one of these localities. 

House Bill 1780, which passed in the House last week by a 89-10 vote, also sought to establish the percentage of the revenue to be allocated to each locality, and that the host locality would retain the remaining 6% of the revenue. 

O’Quinn had filed the legislation to create a legal framework for Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s plan to build small modular reactors in Southwest Virginia. 

However, the same committee by a 15-1 vote passed HB 2178, sponsored by Del. Will Morefield, R-Tazewell County, which would add coal mine methane to the list of alternative sources of energy production that qualify an industry as a creator of green jobs for purposes of the green job creation tax credit.

Markus Schmidt is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach him at or 804-822-1594.