Iowa students gaining interest in robotics, other STEM programs

Lack of diversity in engineering programs, moves Rockwell Collins employees to start, mentor robotics group

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MOUNT VERNON — When Angelique Nijimbere first joined a group of six other middle-school girls to build robots over the summer, she wasn't excited.

But now, just a few months in, she and the rest of Team Sparkle Bots have gone from not knowing what an allen wrench is to creating a  working robot that's fit to compete with robots made by other student teams from across the state. Their robot moves on its own — one of the attributes that makes it a robot — and the girls built and programmed it themselves, with the help of their coaches.

"To be honest, I wanted to join because I wanted to do something new, and I knew it might not sound fun, but I was like 'OK, I'll try it,'" Nijimbere, 13, said during a robotics competition at Mount Vernon high school this past weekend. "Once I got the hang of it, I loved it."

Team Sparkle Bots, a Girl Scout team made up of seven girls from Roosevelt Middle School in Cedar Rapids, is one of more than 100 teams of middle school and high school students that have joined the First Tech Challenge Program (FTC) since it first launched in Iowa in the 2009-2010 school year.

The team got started because Jessica Britton and Raquel Faulkner, who also work at Rockwell Collins, believed that the students who were being exposed to engineering in Cedar Rapids lacked diversity. So Team Sparkle Bots is made up of black middle-school girls.

Now, the two women are incredibly proud of what the team has accomplished.

"Over time, it's just amazing the growth they are showing," said Faulkner, her eyes welling. "They're more versed, they can talk to people, they can explain themselves to people, they can talk to the judges about the different strategies they used to build the robots and why or why not it didn't work  and it's just amazing. I'm really floored by it, it's just kind of emotional to see someone grow like that."

Work force preparation

For Inspiration of Science and Technology (FIRST) is a not-for-profit organization that was founded by inventor Dean Kamen in 1989 to help children at a young age take an interest in science and technology. FIRST programs such as FTC are intended to teach them science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills, team building, self-confidence and other life skills to help prepare them for when they enter the work force.

FTC was one of 12 established programs selected to be part of a the Governor's STEM Advisory Council's Scale-Up initiative in 2012, which helps increase the number of students who participate in STEM programs by providing funding and equipment.

Through FTC, students work together to design, build and program robots to complete certain tasks against other teams in competitions. Teams are awarded for how well their robots compete, on its design, community outreach efforts and other accomplishments.

Increased participation

In the 2008-2009 school year, there were two FTC teams in Iowa. Now, for the 2013-2014 school year, that number has grown to 162 teams.

Rebecca Whitaker, affiliate partner with the FIRST Tech Challenge in Iowa, said they attribute much of that growth to FTC's sponsor, Rockwell Collins, which provides start-up grants for new teams throughout the state of Iowa and in Rockwell's other regional locations, to get them started.

Through the Scale-Up program, funding helped establish FTC programs across the state of Iowa to rural communities with which it didn't previously have any contact.

In fact, Iowa's growth is so tremendous Whitaker said its received attention from the FIRST national headquarters. FTC has experienced enough growth on a national scale - from 53 teams in 2005 to almost 3,000 teams now — to warrant a new competition level to give the growing amount of teams more chances to compete, Whitaker said.

The new competition level — called the Super-Regionals — divides the country into north, south, east and west. Iowa City will host the northern region's first Super-Regional championship tournament in April at Carver Hawkeye Arena.

In the classroom

Whitaker said much of  FTC's growth also can be attributed to word of mouth, and the fact that Iowa companies are beginning to realize the importance of exposing kids to the STEM fields early in their education.

"Students in Iowa need to be prepared for a STEM career, or a career that involves STEM, because in order to be competitive in the global market, we want to make sure the kids of Iowa are able to pick up and learn some traits and talents they will be able to learn for their lifetime," Whitaker said.

"Many jobs high school students will be doing when they join the work force are not even in existence today, so we need to prepare them to be able to work in a global market."

Through FTC programs, students also are often directly connected with mentors in their community. While working on a robot, a local professional is sometimes present to help them learn how the skills they're obtaining in FTC can be applied in the real world.

"It helps them in school because it just gets them thinking about the future," Britton said. "It's different when you go to class and you’re just looking at the clock waiting for that day to go on, and then when these girls start thinking maybe they can go to college, so now they take that schoolwork a little bit more seriously."

Growing Iowa's work force

According to the most recent summary report on the Iowa STEM Monitoring project, there were an estimated 10,000 vacancies in STEM jobs statewide from 2011 to 2012. The report also said 89 percent of students reported they were more interested in at least one STEM subject after participating in one of the related education programs.

After participating, 90 percent of students said they were "more interested" in pursuing a job in a STEM field.

Adriana D'Onofrio, senior community relations specialist with Rockwell Collins, said the company has made FTC funding a priority because it's an investment in the community's future, and it plans to ensure FTC keeps growing.

"This is a great example of a program where we can invest money and we know that it will go to our future work force," D'Onofrio said. "These kids are doing everything that an engineer at Rockwell Collins does — they're planning, they're spending a lot of their time writing software and building, and these are all jobs at Rockwell Collins." 

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