Senator Merkley Announces State of the Union Guest

WASHINGTON – Today, Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley announced his guest for the 2015 State of the Union speech, Umatilla School District Superintendent Heidi Sipe. Several years ago, Merkley and Sipe partnered together to help turn Umatilla’s robotics program from an idea to a reality. Since its inception in 2012, the program has grown enormously, from nine members to 42, and the team has won numerous awards, including qualifying for and competing in the world championships in 2013 and 2014.

“Umatilla’s robotics team is a home-grown Oregon success story to be incredibly proud of, and I’m excited to honor Umatilla’s success by bringing Superintendent Heidi Sipe to the State of the Union this year,” said Merkley. “One of the biggest challenges our country faces today is how to ensure that our kids are getting a strong STEM education that will prepare them for the global economy and help keep good, middle-class jobs here in the United States. The hard work that Heidi, her students, and so many community members in Umatilla have put into building this program is bringing home huge returns. Getting our students engaged in STEM projects and providing them with valuable hands-on experience is exactly what we should be doing, and exactly what this program provides. I’m thrilled that she’ll be here in the Capitol as the President lays out his vision to take on these and many other challenges.”

“Senator Merkley was instrumental in bringing STEM opportunities to the students of Umatilla,” said Superintendent Heidi Sipe. “I’ve long been concerned that rural students have incredible talent, but lack access to the STEM training necessary to prepare them for the jobs of tomorrow. Through Senator Merkley’s encouragement and assistance, our FIRST Robotics team was born. Since that time, our staff and community have worked to make Umatilla a STEM launching pad for students. While just a few years ago it seemed that STEM training and college partnerships could only exist in metro areas, the Umatilla students of today have access to STEM classes during the day and after-school in grades K-12 and can take dual credit courses through Eastern Promise to help them leave high school with both training and college certifications.  Students in Umatilla now have amazing opportunities to dream new dreams for their futures and it all started with the nudge from Senator Merkley in 2011.”

“I am incredibly grateful for all Senator Merkley has done for our community and am honored to join him in Washington DC for the State of the Union speech,” she continued. “While I wish every student, staff member, and volunteer in our community could join me, I am thankful for this amazing opportunity to represent Umatilla and will never forgot the Senator’s commitment to excellence for all students in Oregon.” 

The State of the Union will be delivered next Tuesday, January 20, at 9pm Eastern/6pm Pacific.

Background on the Umatilla Robotics Team

In July 2011, Senator Merkley held a Congressional field hearing to hear directly from local educators, teachers and even students about the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). During that hearing, Merkley talked about his efforts to increase Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education in K12 schools and had a Portland area robotics team attend the hearing and show off the robots that they had built.

Umatilla Superintendent Heidi Sipe, who was at the hearing to talk about the effect of ESEA on rural school districts, spoke with Senator Merkley afterwards about the impact that a robotics team would have on the Umatilla school district and how rural school districts are largely left out of these types of activities. He agreed that having hands on STEM education in all areas of the state is crucial to providing the best education for students, and encouraged Heidi to apply for STEM-related grants to launch her idea of a robotics club in rural Oregon.

In 2012, the Umatilla robotics team was born. In 2013, they made it to the world finals. In 2014, they placed 57th in their division at the world robotics championship, an achievement of which the entire community is extremely proud.

In November 2014, Merkley visited Umatilla High School for a student demonstration of the award-winning robot and to congratulate the members of the team on their accomplishments.