Fostering the Future of STEM Through Mentorship — and Robots

Who knew robots could be so inspirational? Believe it or not, robots are the reason I became an engineer in the first place.

When I was in high school, I involved myself early on with the robotics team after someone on the team allowed me to drive the robot around. Now, you might be thinking to yourself, “a robotics team, how do they compete?”

“The excitement of sport, the rigors of science”

That’s where FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) comes in. Founded in 1989, FIRST aims to encourage young people’s interest and participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) through exciting, mentor-based, research and robotics programs. Their program for high school students, the FIRST® Robotics Competition, enables teams to compete on a specialized playing field with robots they have designed, built and programmed themselves.

Each team is associated with a school or conglomerate of schools and receives a kit of materials that they utilize to construct a sizable robot that competes to perform challenging tasks against a field of competitors. Every season culminates with district and regional events where qualifying teams compete for awards and a spot at the championship.

This year’s competition had planned on (but COVID-19) two competing alliances of three teams picking up and shooting dodgeballs into goals in the wall, as well as pulling themselves up onto a metal bar and balancing with another team. Hosted at DU’s Magness Arena, about 55 teams were scheduled to compete at the Colorado Regional. It really turns it into a sporting event with stands full of cheering people. It’s a lot of fun and really energetic — and I’m looking forward to the next one, post coronavirus.

Through FIRST and the Robotics Competition, I developed a passion for engineering that only grew from my team’s first build. Even better, our team was led by some fantastic mentors who excelled at teaching us concepts and letting us get our hands dirty throughout the design, manufacturing and programming phases. One parent, in particular, inspired me to remain involved with FIRST after graduation and be that awesome mentor for the high school students of today.

STEM Shortage

Experienced individuals that offer guidance, listen closely and provide options, if not solutions, to the obstacles we face, strong mentorship is critical in any industry — especially when it comes to the next generation of innovators.

Innovation leads to new products and processes that sustain the U.S. economy. As such, workers in STEM fields play a pivotal role in continuing the growth and stability of our economy and helping the U.S. win the future.

However, statistics invariably illustrate the United States and the rest of the world face an ever-growing shortage of talent for employees in STEM fields. And the gap grows even further when focused on women in IT, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology.

Why does this shortage exist? Oftentimes, young people, especially young women, lose interest in pursuing a career in STEM because they don’t see the value of a STEM career. To that end, I’ve seen grade school-aged children who might have a natural aptitude for STEM work discouraged from participation because the work is too difficult or “not cool,” so they block it out of their mind.

But mentorship coordinated by programs like FIRST helps to negate those effects by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated. Such mentorship encourages students to bridge the ethnic and gender gaps sometimes found in math and science fields. By engaging students in stimulating and fun mentor-based programs, these programs and mentors ultimately help the next generation of builders blossom into the science and technology leaders of tomorrow.

Monarch High School Mentorship

In January, FIRST released the information about this year’s game, and the team of students I’m helping collaborated over the last couple of months to build a robot for that game. Our team is made up of about 25 students and six regularly involved mentors. The team is roughly 60% upperclassmen, and while comprised of only 20% female students, the team’s leadership features female students in two prominent roles.

At Cardinal Peak, some of our core values include growing together, building community and developing great solutions that solve the toughest engineering problems. Even though I haven’t been at Cardinal Peak for very long, these values are instilled in all of us, and I am encouraged to use my volunteer days to participate in mentorship and contribute to furthering these standards of behavior.

Through participation in FIRST, I’ve been thrilled to experience the opportunity to give back and help shape the engineering community of the future — the next generation of people like me. Not only can I share invaluable firsthand robotics knowledge and expertise, I’m helping engage students and encouraging them to pursue education and careers in critical STEM-related fields.

FIRST provides the opportunity for mentors such as myself to get involved and help young people grow and discover the excitement and rewards of science, technology, engineering and math. Through FIRST’s accessible and innovative programs, I’m able to help motivate young people to pursue education and career opportunities in STEM, while simultaneously building self-confidence, knowledge and life skills.

Stemming the shortage of STEM workers takes a considerable amount of effort, but with opportunities to construct cool robots and through unique educational programs like FIRST, the ability to have a lasting, positive impact and inspire young people for a STEM future has never been easier — or, honestly, more fun — than it is today.