“Don’t be afraid to try things. There are no failures, only learning opportunities.”
–Mike Schueren, FIRST Tech Challenge Mentor
Technology is evolving at an ever-increasing rate, and preparing students for careers that are just emerging (or don’t even exist yet) can be a daunting task. In the past decade we have seen an increasing gap between workforce skills and demands. As the job market becomes more tech-focused, employers struggle to find candidates with the career-readiness and expertise to satisfy job requirements. Employers are looking at creative ways to close the skills gap and create a pipeline for their future workforce.
One way to address this gap is by introducing school-aged children (our future workforce) to technical skills early on in their education. FIRST Indiana Robotics (FIN) is a STEM engagement program where Pre-K – 12 students are challenged to identify, research, and solve real-world problems. We regulate one of the leading, industry-supported, STEM education programs nationwide. FIRST engages 660,000 students in over 110 countries across the globe.
FIRST Indiana Robotics helps bridge the technology skills gap by pairing students with professional mentors.
FIN focuses on the students right here in the state of Indiana. Our students learn new skills (both technical and non-technical) through hands-on learning experiences. When we combine the students’ activities with professional mentors, it brings their experiences to life. While students prepare for competition day they learn the meaning and value of the work that they do, especially as it relates to real-world experiences. In turn, through mentorship, companies are able to lend a hand to help develop students who will fit current and future workforce demands.
Toyota Motor Manufacturing Indiana (TMMI) is an integral supporter of FIRST programs in Indiana. In addition to being a statewide sponsor, they have many employees who volunteer as FIRST mentors. Chris Melvin (Human Resources Organizational Development for the Advanced Manufacturing Technition (AMT) Program at TMMI) comments on the value of their involvement, “We’re able to talk to students who have multiple career ideas when they come into their FIRST team. They’re able to do different activities that they may never have been exposed to, so it’s a new awareness of career opportunities for those students as well.” He also claims that FIRST helps to “solidify those students who know they want to go down a STEM career path. They’re able to put those skills into play and see the application, go to these competitions and see, first-hand the career opportunities that could come after it.”
Mike Schueren has served as a FIRST Tech Challenge mentor for 11 seasons. He says, “As a manager in industry, part of my job is recruiting young talent. I was finding applicants with the technical knowledge; [But] unfortunately, their presentation and practical problem-solving skills were not well developed. When I saw how FIRST promotes learning over competition, I knew this program could help students learn those skills.”
This is what inspired Schueren to become a mentor with FIRST. By engaging with students directly, he is able to help broaden their view beyond the STEM skills they are developing in the program. He maintains, “Students do not initially make the real-world connection to what they are doing in robotics. Coming from industry, I can help make those connections by pointing out similar problems we are solving on a day-to-day basis.”
FIRST Mentors get the satisfaction of building lasting bonds with students who will change the future.
Holly Gregory is a Design Engineer of Electrical Systems and Controls at Caterpillar, Inc. She also dedicates time in the evenings and on weekends to mentor Indiana’s all-girl FRC team, 8232 Girl Gang. She recalls her experience attending the season kickoff, “Watching the unveiling of the challenge and seeing the girls’ excitement was incredible! They could barely wait to start strategizing how to accomplish each task and design the best robot. The enthusiasm for this competition was inspiring.”
For Holly, that initial excitement lasted throughout the entire build season. “The time and energy these girls have put into their robot is insanely motivating! I enjoy spending time helping with any questions or issues that the girls run into, but ultimately, the most rewarding part is being able to see these girls eliminate any obstacles that they face. It’s amazing how they are able to accomplish and problem solve as a team.” By sharing her educational path and professional experience with her team, mentors like Holly Gregory can allow students to see themselves in similar jobs, and this can also open doors.
Students gain confidence in communication skills from support provided by mentors.
There are countless stories of students who feel empowered, under the guidance and encouragement of their mentors, to challenge themselves in ways they never thought possible. Mike Scheuren recalls a situation with one of his students who almost quit under the pressure of kickoff, “Another mentor and I were able to calm them and convince them to come back for the next meeting. Each season, we continued to encourage them to expand their public interactions. FIRST competitions supply a safe and encouraging environment to grow. Eventually they were leading the team presentation and pit interactions!”
The impact of FIRST mentors far exceeds the technical training and insight they share with students as they work side-by-side to complete tasks. Mentors become role models, helping to build self-confidence, effective communication skills, and a strong work ethic. By exposing students to mentor-based, hands-on learning across all FIRST programs, we can narrow the skills gap and provide students who are more equipped to take on the challenges of of Indiana’s workforce.
Written by: Madison Henderson, FIRST AmeriCorps VISTA & Lori Langley, FIRST Senior Mentor