(TNS) -- Robotics may not be as popular as high-school football in Texas. But a new pilot program aims to at least make it as official.
A University Interscholastic League-sanctioned robotics pilot program and state championship announced Thursday will give students the chance to compete with peers in the same way then can for football, debate or journalism.
Texas is the fourth state, and the largest, to officially offer a robotics competition; Arizona, Connecticut and Minnesota are the others. Placing these programs under the authority of the UIL, the governing body for public school extracurricular activities in Texas, will give 5 million students in 1,200 districts access to robotics education and competition.
"It's putting it on the same playing field, no pun intended, as football, basketball and band," said Ray Almgren, the chairman of the robotics organization FIRST in Texas, which is partnering with UIL.
UIL's competitions will take place through the existing events offered by FIRST in Texas and the similar BEST Robotics, as two separate divisions. This will be the first time the UIL has opted to partner with other organizations.
Students in bigger cities now have the most access to school robotics programs. Less than 20 percent of all high schools in Texas have a robotics program, Almgren said. The new UIL distinction could help smaller school districts get in on the growing science, technology, engineering and math field.
Scott Rippetoe, who runs the robotics program for the Conroe Independent School District, said the official designation will help get more students interested in - and aware of - robotics as an extracurricular option. Conroe introduced its robotics team in 1997, Rippetoe said, and the team now has 65 students.
Princpals also will benefit, as the designation will help them ensure that schools are staffed with teachers with the right skills for the job. For principals who want to bring robotics to their schools, Almgren added, the UIL designation will make it easier to bring up the idea with their school boards.
"I've been doing robotics for so long that to have the district get on board, having the UIL designation adds to that. It's like robotics is coming of age," Rippetoe said.
UIL has added several STEM-related activities in recent years, including science tests, number sense contests and calculator applications, part of a broader trend in education. The league began the process of adding robotics to its roster after state Rep. Larry Gonzales. R-Round Rock, met with the founder of FIRST two years ago at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Almgren said.
The UIL championships will take place in summer and fall 2016. The national championship for the FIRST division will, coincidentally, be coming to Houston in 2017.
The statewide competition will ultimately enable one high school to achieve peak bragging rights, Almgren said.
"If you win a UIL state championship, you've won the greatest competitive achievement you can have in your school," he said. "There's nothing higher."
©2015 the Houston Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.