Building Robots to Build Character
Raytheon-mentored teams make a strong showing at the FIRST Robotics Championship
The students of the James A. Foshay Learning Center in South Los Angeles live in a low-income community plagued by gang activity and other urban pressures. College, careers and a path to a better life often seem out of reach.
Despite those challenges, members of the Foshay's For Inspiration and Recognition in Science and Technology (FIRST) Robotics Team 597 have achieved remarkable success.
Every one of the team's members – roughly 40 each year – have graduated and gone to college, with 90 percent majoring in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) fields. Every team member spends 200 hours a year volunteering and mentoring in the community, and have educated more than 5,000 students in the community in STEM.
"They're an incredible group of kids," said Martin Moreno, a Raytheon software engineer who has mentored the team for five years. "They do so much to inspire and motivate other teams, even with limited resources."
Character-building is often its own reward, but it doesn't hurt to earn a trophy for it either. On April 26, in front of a crowd of 45,000 spectators, Team 597 accepted the National Chairman's Award at the FIRST Robotics Championship in St. Louis, Missouri. The event's highest honor, the award recognizes the team that best represents a model for others to emulate, and embodies the FIRST Robotics core values of teamwork and cooperation. The team was selected among 600 others from around the world who came to compete in the world championship.
Team 597 is one of 17 Raytheon-mentored teams that went to the international championship this year, part of the company's MathMovesU initiative to inspire kids to STEM-related education and careers.
"We like to say that we don't just build robots, we build character," said Foshay teacher Darryl Newhouse, founder in 2001 and current head of the school's FIRST Robotics program.
Raytheon has sponsored the FIRST Robotics competition for more than 10 years, helping to fuel the next generation of engineers. In 2014 alone, employees of the company's Space and Airborne Systems business volunteered more than 6,000 hours as mentors to FIRST teams.
Raytheon engineer Matt Driggs, a FIRST mentor for 17 years, has seen the program's long-term impact on students' lives. This year his Team 330, the Beach Bots from Hope Chapel Academy, took first in their division and fifth place overall.
"I remember a student from about 10 years ago who came into the program wanting nothing to do with math and science; she only wanted the free trip to Disney World that was planned at the end of the season," Driggs said. "Today she's finishing up her Ph.D. in chemistry. The program really had a huge impact on her."
Moreno agrees that the program opens up possibilities in unexpected ways.
"It gets kids interested in career paths they may not have considered," he said. "It serves as a springboard to college. And later on, a lot of students come back to be mentors. It really does become like a family that way."
The knowledge-sharing goes both ways, the mentors say.
"When I first started mentoring, I was motivated by the idea of giving back," Moreno said. "But in fact, I've gotten just as much from the students as they have from me."
FIRST Robotics opens up a world of opportunity – and a way to change perceptions about STEM - for the students of Foshay's Team 597.
"The program has changed the culture at our school," Newhouse said. "Many of our kids don't see robotics as geeky anymore. They just want to be a part of it."
These are highlights from other Raytheon-mentored FIRST Robotics teams at the St. Louis championship:
- Cynthia Erenas, Roosevelt High School's Team 4964 captain, won the 2015 Dean's List Award in recognition of her leadership skills and commitment to FIRST Robotics ideals. Team 4964 is a Raytheon-mentored and sponsored team started in partnership with singer Will.i.am's i.am.angel foundation.
- Team 1717 from Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy in Goleta, Calif., won the Innovation in Control Award, which celebrates an innovative control system or application of control components to provide unique machine functions. Ed Ware is the team's mentor.
- Team 3309 from Servite High School in Anaheim, California, won the Quality Award, which celebrates machine robustness in concept and fabrication. Matt Gann is the team's mentor.
- Team 3941 from Aberdeen, Maryland, finished 40th out of a field of 72 teams in one of eight divisions, peaking at a 16th place ranking at one point in the qualification matches. Their robot worked well throughout the competition with no major component failures. Larry Kenney and Dr. Ty Schwenk are the team mentors