Mason Engineering Students Are Mentors in Robotics Competition

Posted: March 26, 2014 at 5:01 am, Last Updated: March 27, 2014 at 7:14 am

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By Preston Williams

George Mason University Honors College student Jordan Newton, roped into joining her high school robotics team as a sophomore, was just along for the ride when she headed to her initial FIRST Robotics competition. In fact, her team’s 120-pound robot might have been more enthusiastic about attending the event than she was.

Jordan Newton

Jordan Newton. Photo courtesy of Jordan Newton

“I thought, okay, it’s a robotics competition. It’s going to be golf-clapping and boring with a bunch of engineers who don’t know how to talk to each other,” says Newton, who attended Deep Run High in the Richmond, Va., area.

What Newton encountered that day at a FIRST event — flying machinery, clamorous cheering and dancing, flamboyant customized team T-shirts and buttons, the manic flurry of activity in the working area known as “the Pit” — changed her life. Thanks in part to her efforts in helping her team succeed that day, robotics became her passion, the foundation of her social life and even helped shape her decision to come to George Mason to major in computer science.

“I just had a feeling that I mattered and that I contributed something important,” says Newton, now a Mason freshman. “It made me feel really good about myself.”

That love for robotics and its unlikely pageantry will be on display March 27-29 at the Patriot Center when Mason for the first time hosts the U.S. FIRST Robotics Greater D.C. Regional. More than 1,200 high school students, mostly from the National Capital region, will vie to earn their teams a berth to nationals next month in St. Louis. (FIRST stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.”)

Those competitors, from 10 states, also will get a firsthand look at Mason, whose Volgenau School of Engineering ranks sixth nationally in return on investment for engineering majors. Newton and many other Volgenau students will volunteer at the event, which all told will attract thousands of participants, family members, volunteers, corporate sponsors and other guests. Admission is free and open to the public. The competition runs from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day.

“Working with the FIRST Robotics program is a win-win for education,” Volgenau Dean Ken Ball says. “The hands-on training and problem-solving skills that students develop while participating on FIRST teams is invaluable. We’re excited to welcome some of the best and brightest students in our region to our campus and invite them to consider Mason’s world-class programs for their future education.”

It was at just such a competition that Newton discovered how valuable she could be to her high school robotics team, Team 1086 Blue Cheese. Initially, her contribution had nothing to do with designing, building or programming a robot. The so-called “sport for the mind” is not all about the technologically savvy one-upping each other. It’s far more inclusive than that.

Just about any student roaming a high school hallway has a skill that would contribute to a robotics team, whether it be using hardware or software, public speaking, business and marketing, designing and creating artwork for team products, updating the team website, writing press releases or pamphlets, fund raising, performing community service and outreach, or, in more of an athletic role, engaging the robot as a “human player.”

“Even if you don’t know anything about engineering, we need every skill that you can offer,” Newton says.

Awards at competitions are given in a variety of categories, from spirit and imagery to the particularly coveted Chairman’s and Engineering Inspiration awards. The teamwork, dedication and communication skills that participants learn are just as important and transferrable as the technical skills.

Robotics teams are dependent on volunteer mentors and corporate sponsors, so participants often are able to work side by side with professionals in the science and tech field. This can lead to help with college — FIRST participants have earned $19 million in scholarships this school year — or even pave the way for future employment.

Those mentors, volunteers and corporate sponsors will be out in full force at the Patriot Center. The event could not take place without them.

“Probably the best thing that I got out of FIRST was the experience working with the mentors,” says freshman civil engineering student Abigail Armuth, who attended the same high school as Newton and who wears her Team 1086 Blue Cheese hoodie around campus as a conversation starter. “Some of them were real engineers. So it wasn’t necessarily working on the robot but the encouragement and support from the volunteers. The robot is just the tool. Without the mentors, none of it could have been possible.”

Parents, most of whom did not grow up with the opportunity to participate in robotics, often have to be exposed to the pursuit before they can understand it. Once they do, they all tend to make the same observation: Gee, I wish we’d had this when I was a kid.

Many current high school students do have that option, and 68,000 nationwide, competing in 54 regional events, are taking advantage of it. Others wish they still could. A year removed from competition, Newton has graduated to mentor.

This week at the Patriot Center, however, her heart will be in the Pit.

“I feel like FIRST has given me a mission to go out and get these kids started in something earlier than I got started,” Newton says. “We’re trying to make engineering and science and technology cool for everyone. We already think it’s cool. We’re trying to make the other people think it’s cool, too.”

Write to Preston Williams at pwilli20@gmu.edu

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