Robotics Mentors, Passionate to Give Back

In 2007, FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Team 2165 was formed at Tri County Tech, an extracurricular activity for grades 9 through 12.  While the program focuses on designing and building a robot to compete in regional competitions, Tri County Tech’s FIRST mentors unanimously agree the ancillary benefits of the program are a significant reason why they invest their time, money, and professional knowledge and experiences into students’ lives.  Additionally, many of the mentors submit volunteer hours to the ConocoPhillips and Phillips 66 Matching Gift programs, which convert to donations for the Robotics program through the Tri County Tech Foundation.

The original members who started TCT’s FIRST program included Mark Dreiling, Don Lauffer, Gordon Stallings, David Register, Nelson Stayton, and George Halkiades.  It is significant to note all but one are still involved after 11 years!  Additional members now include Lanny Seals, Rick Epps, Malcolm Joyce, and Steve Paetz.

The cumulative experience, education, and knowledge base these gentlemen represent is staggering:  two Ph.D. physicists; an MIT graduate; electrical, mechanical, and chemical engineers; a machinist; and a computer science college graduate!  But what one might find even more profound than just the exceptional educational and professional backgrounds represented by the mentors is these gifted gentlemen have a common philanthropic denominator, which is to share with students the exciting possibilities science and engineering fields offer.  How?  By providing a real-world engineering experience through the FIRST program.

FIRST Robotics is an international program focused on applying STEM-related areas (science, technology, engineering, and math) in a fun and creative way.  At an appointed time on the first Saturday in January, the international FIRST program reveals, via the internet, what the current year’s official “game” will look like, which consists of a robot performing certain tasks to score points.  From there, the local FIRST team begins brainstorming on how to create and build a robot that can execute tasks as revealed by the “game” requirements, but must also comply with all mandatory design specifications.  The mentors and students are then allowed six weeks to create their robot for competition.  It is during this time where real-life, hands-on engineering is experienced, covering the gamut from design to fabrication.  Once the robot is complete, each robotic team then competes in regional competitions, with the potential of qualifying for an international competition.

As one mentor expressed, “We’re trying to build engineers, not necessarily win or just build a robot,” and because this goal is accomplished under the direction of mentors, many important life skills are also developed.  

At competitions, students are encouraged and expected to be capable to articulate to peers and adults from other schools all facets of how their robot functions.  The mentors voiced how energizing it is to see a student grow from an introverted young person who has difficulty making eye contact when answering a question to a young adult who is able to field questions with self-confidence and poise.

Several mentors stressed the importance of allowing students to come up with their own design ideas, even though the mentors know by their professional experiences the design is flawed and will fail.  By doing so, the student is allowed to face difficulties and subsequently apply problem-solving methods.  Sometimes during the fabrication phase, a specific part is needed but turns out to be quite elusive to locate.  Students are challenged to be creative and think outside the box on how to remedy the issue.  

Another benefit voiced by the mentors is the students’ opportunity to become comfortable using tools for the first time:  drills, saws, 3-D printers, et cetera.  Safety guidelines are a must, just like one would experience in the world of industry; but becoming skilled at using new tools becomes part of the students’ life experience.

Many of the mentors voiced immense satisfaction as they witness a student’s  “ah-ha” moment while working on various phases of design and construction.  Often at this point when the proverbial light bulb has turned on, the student will enthusiastically instruct the mentor to “get out of my way”!  After weeks of brainstorming, troubleshooting, experiencing teamwork, as well as successes and failures, a student often goes from requesting help to an “I’ve got this” attitude!  

The mentors ended our time together by extending tremendous respect and gratitude to Tri County Tech’s pre-engineering instructors, Kendall Baker and Brenda Jackson.  As one mentor shared, the faculty have “consistently contributed an immense amount of time” to the Robotics program and students.  It is a testament to both mentors and instructors to see former Robotics participants embrace careers of science and engineering and to have former students return and provide peer leadership to the younger students.  

For more stories about Tri County Tech’s Robotic program, please view prior articles on the TCT website.  If you are interested in participating in TCT’s Robotic program, please call Kendall Baker at 918.331-3266 or Brenda Jackson at 918.331-3219.