Naval Surface Warfare Center Philadelphia Division (NSWCPD) engineers and mathematicians mentored high school teams that competed in the FIRST Robotics World Championship in Detroit, April 25 through 28.
The FIRST Robotics program provides students hands-on Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) experience, while also providing NSWCPD mentors an opportunity to share their love of science with next generation engineers. The word FIRST in the program name means, “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.”
FIRST was founded in 1989 and has been a positive influence for students in their careers. According to their website, more than 75 percent of FIRST alumni go on to work in STEM related fields.
As with much of the Department of Defense, NSWCPD actively supports initiatives that increase student interest in STEM. Peter Mark, STEM program manager in talent management, developed a new NSWCPD STEM Outreach Charter in 2017. The charter outlines a plan to engage the workforce through participation in STEM activities with students in K-12, college, and advanced education.
“In accordance with our STEM initiatives, High School STEM is a huge opportunity to educate and engage talented participants,” Mark said.
FIRST Robotics has proven to be a successful endeavor for NSWCPD employees to engage high school students, teach them real-world engineering skills, and further their interest in science.
The teams have six weeks to design, program, and build a remote controllable robot for the FIRST Robotics competition. The challenges of the competition teach students how to create both complex programs and designs.
Students learn computer engineering by creating a program capable of running as a remote controllable unit as well as autonomously. The mechanical engineering design must be strong enough to carry itself at one point, yet nimble enough to pick up and move objects. And finally the students also learn electrical engineering through their use of electric motors and controllers within the robots.
Neither of the two NSWCPD-mentored teams won the championship, however the FIRST Robotics competition gave the students a valuable hands-on STEM experience. The mentors help the students learn valuable skills in programming, designing, and working with a team. The program also granted NSWCPD employees an opportunity to meaningfully connect with the community and nearly 20 schools in and around Philadelphia.
“I grew up in Northeast Philly,” said Andrew Richey, a mathematician in Advanced Machinery Systems Integration branch at NSWCPD. “I just want to give back.”
When NSWCPD employees volunteer in the community, they act as ambassadors for the Navy. FIRST Robotics has also benefitted NSWCPD’s recruiting initiatives. Several students from mentor-led teams have participated as Naval Research Enterprise Internship Program (NREIP) or Science and Engineering Apprenticeship Program (SEAP) interns.
The program has been a big part of mechanical engineer Sean Lavery’s career and personal life. Lavery first joined a First Robotics team in 2003 when he was in high school.
“My father was a mentor on the high school team before I joined,” Lavery explained. “I always knew I wanted to do STEM Stuff. I’ve been involved [with FIRST] for half my life now.”
Lavery has mentored Lower Merion High School’s FIRST Robotics team since 2008, the same year he started working as a co-op for NSWCPD. This is the second world championship for Lower Merion’s team, Dawgma, in three years. This year they made it all the way to the competition’s quarter-finals. Dawgma’s success is in-part thanks to Lavery’s dedication.
“I feel pride in seeing these kids go on and do cooler thing than I was able to do,” Lavery explained. “Teams are much better now than when I started.”
Dawgma was joined by RoboLancers, Philadelphia’s Central High School team, at the Detroit World Championship. This year RoboLancers were recognized with a Regional Chairman’s Award for their work outside of the STEM field. FIRST describes The Chairman’s Award as, “The most prestigious award at FIRST, it honors the team that best represents a model for other teams to emulate and best embodies the purpose and goals of FIRST.”
RoboLancers, and the rest of Central High School, have raised $30,000 to help 14 other schools create teams. The teams that RoboLancers have assisted financially also share mentorship from Richey, Sean Gallagher, Austin Boyd, Russel Bizaro, Kyle Verrinder and Tristan Wolfe, fellow Advanced Machinery Systems Integration branch engineers at NSWCPD.
“Working with RoboLancers was a good way to get our feet wet and see how teams operate,” said Boyd, who has mentored multiple Philadelphia-area teams over the last year.
The RoboLancers always have a good turnout of around 60 students who want to be involved and help. Some of the other schools that NSWCPD engineers mentor may only have two or three students participate in weekly meetings. Reaching these students and getting them involved in STEM and informing them of opportunities in the Navy is a big deal to Gallagher, a mechanical engineer who has been working with FIRST teams for 5 years.
Early on, Gallagher recognized there was a financial barrier preventing some schools from becoming involved in afterschool STEM projects. However, he was excited when he learned of FIRST. For the FIRST competition, each team uses a standard kit to create its robots. The kit and registration costs about $6,000; which is relatively inexpensive compared to other STEM programs.
“FIRST seemed like it really hit on everything we needed,” Gallagher said. “It’s not super cost-prohibitive and a lot of it comes in kits so you aren’t starting from scratch.”
NSWCPD has focused on helping schools and students that are underprivileged.
Alonzie Scott III, director, NAVSEA enterprise talent management office, believes the focus on STEM education is crucial to improving the world.
“Mahatma Gandhi once said ‘be the change you want to see in the world.’ That’s what our robotics and STEM programs are all about,” said Scott. “This is one way our people are making a difference.”
NSWCPD provides the Navy’s primary technical expertise for naval machinery research and development and in-service engineering, as well as machinery cybersecurity and lifecycle engineering.
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