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This is one of the toughest questions kids of all ages are asked when they start school. It continues until they choose a major in college or find a steady job. Few students will make a living pursuing typical teenage dreams of playing sports or being musicians. There is a greater possibility that students will achieve (professional) glory in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields and affect the world in unique ways. However, the number of students graduating with those degrees is disproportionate to the need we will face to fill positions in just a few short years. As professionals in these fields, it is our responsibility to help empower more kids to get involved at an early age, and mentor them as they pursue their academic dreams.

In high school, most of us are just trying to figure out where we fit in the world. The kids participating in the FIRST® Robotics Competition, particularly the ones at St. Mary’s Catholic Secondary in Hamilton, Ontario, are instead figuring out how they are going to change the world. FIRST—For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology—inspires young people to become the science and technology leaders who will build solutions to tomorrow’s greatest challenges.

I dropped by a local FIRST event about a decade ago and, as an engineer working for a robotics company, was naturally curious about the competition. The venue felt like a high-stakes sports competition, but instead of a well-manicured soccer pitch or polished ice rink with high schoolers flying in all directions, the venue was a gymnasium filled with robots, controlled by students, meticulously accomplishing a specific task. Interestingly, though, the enthusiastic energy the students and the crowd flooded into the competition was no different than a Friday night football game or game seven of the hockey playoffs.

With my own kids in elementary school at the time, I immediately had to get involved and form a FIRST LEGO League (FLL) team. FIRST begins at the elementary school level, where the nonprofit organization instills and nurtures a fascination with science and technology in young children. The ingenious approach to nurturing children at that age is profound yet simple – LEGOS. The basic building blocks of problem solving, engineering processes and math lessons that will solve real problems are established with tools disguised as toys. These are not the LEGOS of my youth – today the kits include programmable controllers, motors, sensors and gears. With these tools and some advice from their adult mentors, students as young as nine years old are able to build, program and compete with autonomous battery-operated robots.

Once my kids and their teammates moved to high school, I helped develop MakeShift, the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) team at St. Mary’s Catholic Secondary. At this level, each year’s challenge is different. Beginning in January, almost 3,000 FRC teams receive their challenge and have six weeks to conceive, design, build, test and refine their robots—daunting to even a seasoned engineer. True to any engineering project, there is not enough time or money to accomplish the task, but somehow, the students manage to rise to the occasion. Using the same tools professionals would – computer-aided design (CAD), sophisticated programming software, machining, wiring, soldering –students create a robot that accomplishes the task. At the end of the six weeks, the robot is sealed and remains untouched until the first day of the Regional competition.

This year, MakeShift accomplished all of this and much more with their three-part robot, ROY G BIV. In the Regional competition at the University of Waterloo, they reached the quarterfinals and then went on to win the Rochester Regional in New York, as well as the Chairman’s Award. This is the most prestigious award in FIRST as it recognizes the team that best represents a model for other teams to emulate. The recipient team best embodies the purpose and goals of FIRST, including acting with gracious professionalism and competing like crazy, while at the same time respecting and assisting its partners and opponents.

MakeShift was then invited to the World Championships in St. Louis where they finished in the top five percent of teams in the world, making it to the division finals. As a result, the Indiana Robotics Invitational extended an opportunity to compete at their 60-team, exclusive event in July. Afterwards, the team will pay it forward by going to elementary schools to begin mentoring their own successors. The team will also do a design review at Cimcorp North America headquarters with Cimcorp engineers.

Of all my professional accomplishments, none are quite as rewarding as working with incredible students who realize the potential STEM has for them. Since establishing that first FLL team, I am privileged to have helped form 17 additional FIRST teams. FIRST mentors come from the ranks of professionals who are performing the same tasks during the day before passing along the principle and practice of their work to their teams. It takes long hours and a supportive employer, like Cimcorp, to allow people like me to help these students, the problem solvers of the future, succeed.

To learn more about FIRST and help the next generation of STEM professionals achieve their potential, visit www.usfirst.org… and get involved, you won’t regret it.

TEXT: MATT ALDERSON, ENGINEERING TEAM MANAGER, CIMCORP AUTOMATION LTD.  PHOTO: MATTHEW CIPRIETTI, STONEY CREEK

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