Who's on FIRST?

Engineers of Tomorrow Get a Leg Up Today by Participating in Programs and Organizations Designed for Youths

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By Mike Bacidore, managing editor

Who will have your job 20 years from now? At ControlDesign.com during the past few months, we’ve been asking you about the next generation of engineers. Where are they? How are they being encouraged and prepared for their future careers? As the Baby Boom generation begins its transition to retirement, when will the new breed step into those vacated shoes? What are they doing now in the way of training?

We began looking for incubation pockets of young engineers, speaking with machine builders and suppliers along the way, and one thing became clear very quickly—youngsters are not wanting for programs and organizations devoted to teaching and developing science, technology and specifically engineering skills in the work force of tomorrow.

In fact, so many curricula and groups appeared on our radar screen that we decided to spend some time looking individually at each one. But where to start? Which one would we cover first? The question itself begs the answer.

High school students work on their entry during the FIRST Robotics Competition.
Photo by FIRST


FIRST—Science & Technology Heroes

“In high school, I was a mechanical team leader on the FIRST team in Southeastern Wisconsin from Arrowhead High School,” says Adam Czerwonka, a mechanical engineer at Woodward Governor in Rockford, Ill., where he also now is lead mentor/program coordinator for the Rockford Robotics team in the FIRST Robotics League. “The entire thing started when a friend of mine and I were looking to build a ‘battlebot’ and realized how expensive it was. Because our school didn’t have the money, we had to ask the presidents of companies to donate thousands of dollars for something they’d never heard of. We put together a PowerPoint presentation and went to some companies. We got the FIRST team started that way.”

FIRST, actually an acronym—for inspiration and recognition of science and technology—was founded in 1989 with just 28 teams. Based in New Hampshire, it has since expanded to 13,000 teams and cemented its footing on the international stage.

Children as young as 6 years old can participate in the Junior FIRST Lego League. They then graduate to FLL at age 9, before participating in the FIRST Tech Challenge and FIRST Robotics Competition at the high-school level.

“Our competitions encourage ‘coopetition,’” says Paul Gudonis, president of FIRST. “In your career you’ll have to collaborate with your joint-venture partners, your competitors and your suppliers. We’ve created a microcosm of that in the FIRST competitions. Nobody succeeds alone. It’s all about bringing a variety of skill sets together. There are the technical skills, whether it’s Autodesk software or doing C. We want this to be a sport of the mind where kids are as excited about this as they are about baseball or soccer.”

Has the program worked? According to results published in An Evaluation of the FIRST Robotics Competition, a study completed by Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University (in which 55% of the respondents were non-white and 41% were female), 89% of FIRST participants went on to pursue a college education, and 41% of them declared an engineering major.

“I had never thought about engineering as a career before that,” admits Czerwonka, who graduated from the University of Minnesota in aerospace engineering and mechanics program after his FIRST experience. “Working with those mentors had a big impact on my thoughts of what I might do as a career. I knew I liked science, but that was a big influence on me picking engineering as a career. It really encompasses all of the fun aspects of engineering. Your mentors are pushing you.”

Like many former FIRST team members, Czerwonka now hopes that he can pass that enthusiasm on as a coach. “A lot of people have really been helped by this program and come back to help in the same way that I have,” he says. “Last year we had 13 kids on the team, and this year we’ll have 15 to 20 and six full-time mentors. About a third of our kids are home-schooled students. We have some students from the private high schools, but we are underrepresented by the public high schools. Once this team gets big enough we can start talking about getting more teams going.”

More Teams, More Time, More Money

“We’re showing the kids it’s more fun to design a video game than it is to play one,” says Rick Folea, CTO of Ricreations in Gainesville, Ga. In addition to running the company that he owns with his wife, Theresa, Folea is mentor of the Forsyth Alliance, a FIRST robotics team that includes the four high schools in Forsyth County, where he lives and works. It’s also an umbrella organization that manages and organizes all of these teams at the middle-school and elementary-school levels and runs the regional event for the FIRST Lego League.

“I remember the first year I found out our team captain had never picked up a tool before. Now he’s studying mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech. Every single kid who’s left this program has gone on to engineering in college. This year, the mechanical guys are building new chassis. The electronics guys are studying schematics and designing an LED board. We spend an inordinate amount of time with these kids in the labs. We always tie these things back into their school curriculum. When we tie it back, it all works.”

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