STEM Education for All

It Is Not Only in the U.S. That High-Tech Firms Feel the Need to Develop the Next Generation of Engineering Excellence Through FIRST Programs

By Aaron Hand

Last month's Live Wire column touched briefly on the robotics competitions organized by FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). But that FIRST mention only just scratches the surface of the efforts going on, not only to foster a passion for technology, but to help our kids grow into curious, independent, problem-solving adults (perhaps engineers).

FIRST has U.S. roots. But it is not only here that high-tech firms feel the need to develop the next generation of engineering excellence, so FIRST is spreading globally.

Parametric Technology (PTC), recognized earlier this year as a FIRST strategic partner, is actively involved in helping FIRST push its message further afield by looking to promote science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) educational opportunities.

PTC, which develops product lifecycle management software for industry, has been involved in FIRST for about five years, beginning as a collaboration sponsor for the FIRST Robotics Challenge (FRC), a high-level competition for large teams of high school students. The company has since involved itself — through software donations, cash donations, and considerable employee participation — in the FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) and FIRST Lego League (FLL) as well. FTC is a high school program competing with smaller teams in head-to-head challenges, and FLL introduces elementary and middle school students to engineering challenges through Lego Mindstorm robots.

Although PTC saw the strategic value in the FRC program because of the high level of system engineering challenge, the company realizes that the smaller FTC program could be much more scalable on a global level, according to Robin Saitz, senior vice president, solutions marketing and communications, and executive sponsor for FIRST at PTC.

Israel has a very strong FIRST program throughout the country; and Australia has one FRC team, Saitz says. "It is and should be even more so a global program," she says, noting that FLL is very global, with the world championship bringing teams from all over the world. "The high school program hasn't scaled as much internationally. Some of that has to do with cost. Each team has to raise between $10,000 and $20,000 to compete."

For the FTC program, on the other hand, the cost is more like $1,500 to $3,000 per team. This program is more likely to help FIRST reach its goal of being in every high school in the world, Saitz says. So PTC took the initiative to spread the FTC program to India last year, near one of its offices and in partnership with a customer there.

"The demand for the program was evident immediately," Saitz says. For the pilot program, the plan was to start with seven or eight teams, with 10 kids on each team. "We told the schools that we would offer this program, and we had about 80 spots for kids. They came back and said they had over 3,000 kids that wanted to be on a team."

PTC ran a pilot program in April in Shanghai with similar results, and also is starting a program in Romania. "We're also looking to expand into France, Germany, and the U.K.," Saitz says. The company always has made a point of involving its customers in FIRST activities, co-sponsoring teams that are local to their customers' bases. The reach is increasingly global. "It's rare that you find companies that are just in the United States. A lot of our very large customers that have engineering needs globally are interested in seeing FIRST grow internationally as well because they need employees."

Now PTC is expanding its involvement not only geographically, but also on a socio-economic level. After its recent conference in Las Vegas, the employees wanted to leave behind something more than just money on the blackjack tables. So they're teaming up with FIRST and the Las Vegas chapter of After-School All-Stars, an organization that provides after-school and summer programs for low-income, at-risk kids.

The emphasis there is on the FLL program. Since it is aimed at younger students, FLL might be less likely to develop future engineers. "If we can get these at-risk kids involved in FLL, they'll develop all kinds of life skills, regardless of whether they go into engineering later or not," Saitz says. "If we can get a program going there, we will end up for sure creating great future professionals, and hopefully we'll create great future STEM professionals."

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