We've all heard and read that the U.S. is falling behind other nations in high school math and science, leading to a decline in engineering graduates. But there's a solution, and it starts at the grassroots level, often with just one family and one company.
Back in early 2005, Rick Folea's 14-year-old son, Chris, asked his dad to start up a FIRST robotics team in Forsyth County, Georgia. FIRST is an acronym—for inspiration and recognition of science and technology (www.usfirst.com). It's a nonprofit company that inspires young people's interest and participation in science and technology through a variety of programs.
One of Rick's first steps was to get sponsors, and he started with AutomationDirect, headquartered in Forsyth County. Folea was familiar with AutomationDirect through his own company, Ricreations (www.universalscan.com), a designer of test tools for manufacturing.
Fortunately for Folea, AutomationDirect had been looking for just such an opportunity, and it decided to become the sole sponsor. "This was and is such a perfect fit for us," says Tina Gable, advertising manager at AutomationDirect. "How often does a company get to sponsor and support an activity that is directly related to its own day-to-day business operations?"
Along with the volunteer efforts of the Foleas and many other interested parents and teachers in the county, the FIRST team was off and running for the 2005-06 season. Chris Folea volunteered for 3D CAD and animation duties, and he also pulled together the initial team of 11 students. The team's robot, dubbed "Otto Mation" or "Otto" for short, won the Rookie All-Star award at the Peachtree Regional and advanced to the World Championships in Atlanta.
For 2006-07, AutomationDirect upped its sponsorship level as the Forsyth Alliance became an umbrella organization rather than just one specific team. The alliance also extended support into the elementary- and middle-school levels by giving seed money to more than 20 Lego League teams.
The FIRST team performed extremely well at its regional competition, and AutomationDirect hired its first batch of summer interns from the team. Gable says the interns made significant contributions in many areas, including new product testing, Web development and video production.
More progress was made during the 2007-08 season. In addition to the high school team, the program initiated support for 35 more elementary- and middle-school teams in Forsyth County. The county hosted the largest FIRST Lego League qualifier in the state.
After the 2008-09 season, the FIRST program spurred the local Forsyth County Board of Education to action. Beginning in the fall of 2009, the board instituted an entire Engineering/Robotics Career Pathway in the four county high schools and created two engineering career academies.
His main mentor job well done after the 2009-10 season, Rick Folea moved into an advisory capacity for the overall program. And what about Chris Folea, the impetus along with his dad for the whole Forsyth Alliance program?
Chris now attends a prestigious university on scholarship and is studying 3D animation. "The animation work Chris did during his summer internships at AutomationDirect directly contributed to his gaining admittance and a scholarship to the Savannah College of Art and Design," says his dad. "He was just so far ahead of the other students because of his practical work experience."
As you dig deeper into FIRST, "you find out that it's not really about building robots," says Gable. "It's about cooperating, building functioning teams and learning multiple engineering disciplines. It also teaches engineering methodologies, industry relations and community involvement."
Managing Editor Mike Bacidore wrote about FIRST, its activities and the people and companies who participate ("Who's on FIRST?") back in 2007. You can find his report and thoughts about the organization at www.controldesign.com/first.