St. Louis MO – From 1995 until their recent relocation to Los Angeles, the St. Louis Rams football team waged titanic, bone-crushing contests of brute physical force against their NFL opponents in the Edward Jones Dome.This April, 20,000 combatants and 40,000 fans gathered in that same arena to witness a more cerebral type of battle: robots, built and controlled by high-school students, on a quest to weaken, breach and capture an opponent’s castle.
The 2016 competition challenge, called “FIRST STRONGHOLD℠,” was part of the FIRST® Robotics Competition, an annual, seven-week competition program for high schoolers and the flagship program in a progression of FIRST programs for students in grades K-12. On the first Saturday of January, high school teams around the globe receive a kit of parts from which they must build a 6 foot, 120-pound robot that can perform a set of tasks in accordance with the competition challenge. The teams have just six weeks to complete the build and then the robot is sequestered until the competition events begin in late February. Top teams at each event then qualify to participate in the FIRST Championship with the “best of the best.”
The FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) program was created in 1989 by Dean Kamen, a leading American scientist and inventor whose products include the Segway human transporter and the iBOT battery-powered wheelchair. Kamen had the vision to question why kids looked up to athletes and actors as their heroes. In an effort to change our culture, he created FIRST to show kids that there are other kinds of stars worth emulating.
Amy Devine, a technical manager for the LGS LTE team in Lisle, volunteered to judge some of the entries in this year’s contest and came away impressed with the caliber of talent at the competition. “It absolutely floored me, how smart and dedicated these kids are,” she says. “I was amazed at the levels of collaboration within and among the teams as they built their robots—and launched outreach programs to share their knowledge with others, which is also how the teams were judged. They all exhibited a truly ‘Gracious Professionalism’ throughout the entire process.”
Amy became aware of this volunteering opportunity through the outreach work she’s performed with her college sorority, Alpha Omega Epsilon (ΑΩΕ), for many years. The sorority was launched for women in engineering and technical sciences in 1983 at Marquette University; Amy founded the Theta chapter while earning her B.S. degree in computer engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), and then later served as the sorority’s Executive Board President from 2008 to 2012 and from 2014 to present.
ΑΩΕsponsors a variety of programs and partnerships dedicated to promoting women’s academic and working careers in engineering. These include mentorships with junior high school students, judging science fairs, teaming with the Girl Scouts in STEM activities, and hosting “Engineering 101” networking weekends where university faculty help to give matriculating students an idea of college life.
“Our sorority has been interested in FIRST for a long time,” Amy explains. “As Executive Board President, I was able to reach out to Sigma Phi Delta, an international engineering fraternity, and approach the FIRST management team with a strong case for partnering together. FIRST gets kids interested in STEM while sororities and fraternities like ours work to get them through to graduation day.”
Sigma Phi Delta (SPD) is an international professional-social fraternity of engineers, founded in 1924 to promote the advancement of the engineering profession. “We’ve been partnering with Alpha Omega Epsilon since 1995, and welcomed Amy’s invitation to join her sorority in supporting the FIRST program this year,” says Eric J. Pew, Grand Vice President of SPD. “Amy is a shining example of how one can give back to the engineering community. We look forward to continuing our partnership with Alpha Omega Epsilon to support FIRST.”
“This was our first year as a FIRST Strategic Alliance,” Amy adds. “It’s been so great to see how students get so excited about engineering these robots—it’s a great inducement to stick with STEM academics and finish that degree.”
With a judging partner, Amy evaluated the engineering approaches taken by 15 high school teams in this year’s Championship competition. “The whole experience was simply amazing,” she says. “I was really struck by how smart these kids are, and how many girls were on the teams—and by how many all-girl teams we saw. As an engineer, I really feel the need to encourage all these kids pursue their STEM careers so we can retain and grow their talents. They’ve got the drive and the grit to get through these challenging programs—with care and feeding, they’ll be shaping tomorrow’s innovations.”
As FIRST programs continue to grow, so does the need for talented mentors to support them. Whether you are an experienced engineer or technician, a parent looking to spend more quality time with your children, or just looking for a volunteer opportunity in your community, FIRST has a volunteer role suited to your unique interest. For more information, visit Volunteer for FIRST.
 Gracious Professionalism™ is part of the ethos of FIRST. It’s a way of doing things that encourages high-quality work, emphasizes the value of others, and respects individuals and the community.