State education officials accept first grants from Tesla’s $37.5 million investment promise

Tesla gigafactory near Reno, Nevada, when it was still under construction. Source: Tesla

By Jackie Valley

Tesla has launched the first installment of its $37.5 million investment in Nevada education, fulfilling a promise made nearly four years ago.

The electric carmaker, which has its Gigafactory in the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center, announced an initial $1.5 million worth of grants Thursday morning at the Board of Education meeting. It’s the first phase of the funding rollout, which will inject $7.5 million annually into education initiatives related to the so-called “STEM” fields — science, technology, engineering and math — over the next five years.

The first grants are:

  • $315,550 to FIRST Nevada and $127,100 to Robotics Education and Competition Foundation (VEX), which will help establish a robotics program at every Nevada school.
  • $263,924 to the Desert Research Institute to develop a statewide teacher-training infrastructure focusing on robotics and STEM. It will involve collaboration with both UNLV and UNR.
  • $262,700 to The Envirolution, Inc. for the Project ReCharge initiative, a program that pools community organizations, school districts, teachers and students to deliver hands-on, project-based learning opportunities — for instance, students exploring how to make their schools and local businesses more energy efficient.
  • $200,000 to Jobs for Nevada’s Graduates (JAG Nevada) for mentoring, job and skills development and career placement services for students. The grant will help JAG create an “Education to Employment” pathway across state industries and expand access to 20 percent more students.
  • $154,083 to Sierra Nevada Journeys (SNJ) to encourage students’ interest in STEM and boost their achievement level in those subjects. The grant will help the organization offer 250 scholarships for students in underserved communities to attend an overnight camp at Grizzly Creek Ranch; give 900 more students access to its STEM programs; and jumpstart an engineering camp for girls, which will involve participation from Tesla team members.
  • $76,643 to Energetics Education, Inc. to pilot a program called Solar Rollers, which challenges high schoolers to design, build, test and race solar-powered, radio-controlled cars while also learning about complete energy systems in the process. It will be based in Washoe County.
  • $50,000 each to the Washoe and Clark County school districts to establish a new position in their career technical education (CTE) offices to train and implement programming associated with the forthcoming investments. They’ll also help support neighboring school districts.

Tesla unveiled its education-related plans in a letter to Gov. Brian Sandoval in September 2014, days after announcing plans to build a giant lithium-ion battery factory in Northern Nevada. The education investment was part of a deal struck with the Governor’s Office of Economic Development when Tesla agreed to move here and accept a $1.25 billion tax-incentive package.

Since then, company officials have been working with an advisory group of state education leaders, nonprofits and government officials to select the grant recipients.

“The demand for STEM jobs in Nevada will continue to grow dramatically over the next few years,” JB Straubel, Tesla’s chief technology officer, said in a statement. “That is why we’re investing in initiatives that inspire students to choose a career in STEM and sustainability and give them a foundation for success.”

The grant recipients could receive more funding in the future, but Tesla also will regularly announce new entities that will receive money for various programs or projects. All funding initiatives will be subject to investment reviews — an effort to build accountability into the financial gifts.

Sandoval and state Superintendent Steve Canavero lauded the investment as a boost to the state’s education system but also its economy.

“An integral part of our vision for the new Nevada economy is developing an educated workforce that meets the demands of the industries coming into our state,” Sandoval said in a statement. “With this initial investment, even more students in Nevada will be exposed to STEM education and we are grateful to Tesla for their commitment to education in Nevada.”

Education officials noted that 40 percent more STEM-related jobs are projected to exist in Nevada by 2024. Additionally, the state is experiencing what has been termed a “middle-skills gap” of around 28,000 jobs. That phrase refers to jobs that require some post-secondary training or certification, but not necessarily a college degree.

Tesla has already been working to bridge that gap through its Manufacturing Development Program, an apprenticeship that trains students for future careers, including at the Gigafactory. More than 50 recent Nevada high school graduates will be joining Tesla as full-time employees in August, said Chris Reilly, who oversees the company’s workforce development and education programs.

Reilly said the company, which plans to employ more than 6,500 full-time workers in Nevada, sees the investments as a greater good for the entire state.

“We want this to help foster the next generation of our engineers in Nevada,” he said.

Still, Canavero said the grants reflect broader trends — Nevada’s desire to become the fastest-improving state in terms of education as well as build a stronger workforce pipeline.

“This is more than just about Tesla,” he said, adding later that it’s “one piece of a big portfolio of work.”

This story was updated at 12:54 p.m. to include more information from the board meeting.

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