When Texas teenager Jessica Martinez first stepped into the halls of her high school, she never imagined that her high school career would include building robots, programming motherboards, and teaching her robotic creations to pick up objects and balance on beams in tech competitions.
That’s not the typical experience for most high schoolers, but thanks to FIRST® in Texas, Jessica did all that and more, as reported in an article covering Incarnate Word High School’s STEM program. Besides building and programming robots, Jessica and her school’s all-female robotics teams, the Shambots and the Shambots 2.0, spent hours practicing with intricate controls, directing their team built robot to pick up objects and place them in precise locations.
The experience changed the lives of these Texas teenagers. Many of them have decided to pursue careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math), and their participation in FIRST® competitions has opened doors to college scholarships and jobs with successful tech companies.
Stories like this are the hallmark of FIRST® in Texas programs. The personal growth and success of FIRST® participants have only strengthened the foundation’s resolve to provide every student in Texas the same opportunity that Jessica enjoyed.
The Story and Vision of FIRST in Texas
The FIRST® in Texas Foundation began in 2010, and things accelerated quickly from there. With over 5 million dollars in grants from the Texas Workforce Commission and corporate partners, FIRST® in Texas has supported more than 1,000 middle and high school robotics teams and organized hundreds of FIRST® LEGO® League events. FIRST® programs have ushered Texans as young as six into the exciting world of STEM.
But the roots of the foundation go further back.
Its parent organization, FIRST®, was founded by Dean Kamen in 1989 with the goal of offering four levels of training in robotic programming. Kamen started his career as an inventor and holds more than 440 U.S. and foreign patents, including those for landmark medical technologies such as the infusion pump and the first wearable insulin pump. His passion for STEM, and for passing on the torch of innovation to the next generation, is contagious.
The goal of FIRST® is simple: give young people a vivid, life-changing glimpse into the world of STEM. With the help of mentor-based programs, FIRST® molds young minds into future leaders. Along the way, students gain essential life skills and develop qualities such as innovation, self-confidence, communication, and leadership.
Texas: A Rising Star in STEM Education
A rigorous, exciting, purposeful immersion in STEM is exactly what Texas students need. Of course, it’s not that Texas is an underachiever in this area. In fact, according to US News rankings, three of the top fifteen STEM high schools in the nation are in Texas. The Texas Education Agency notes that Texas is home to over 121 T-STEM Academies, and FIRST® in Texas has supported STEM teams in over 1,000 schools.
However, with over 3,700 high schools in Texas, there is still work to be done.
FIRST® in Texas is working hard to give every student in Texas access to Kamen’s groundbreaking FIRST® programs. The foundation is an advocate for STEM at all levels of education, supporting robotics teams at the high school level, and giving students real-world skills in technology. Students of FIRST® are equipped with workforce readiness and highly valued soft skills along with access and exposure to FIRST® in Texas Partners. These partners include some of the best tech companies in the world, Dell and Texas Instruments among them.
Many FIRST® in Texas students have gone on to STEM dream jobs.
Starting With The Tiniest Texans
Undoubtedly, some of the programs that make FIRST® in Texas so effective are the fastest growing in the state and start with the Tiniest Texans:
- FIRST® LEGO League Jr.: To give students as much STEM preparation as possible, FIRST® in Texas starts early. LEGO® League Jr. is structured for kids ages 6 through 10, and designed to introduce STEM to children in a way that’s intuitive and exciting. Teams of six dive into real-world scientific problems, which might include food safety, recycling challenges, or energy solutions. The teams then create a Show Me presentation poster that describes their journey through the scientific problem. The team also uses LEGO® components to build a motorized model of what they learned. This exciting journey teaches students the value of teamwork, sharing, and critical thinking. It also instills a lifelong enthusiasm for STEM.
- FIRST ® LEGO League: The LEGO® League, for ages 9 through 14, takes the LEGO® League Jr. experience to the next level with larger teams (up to 10 students) and bigger problems. Like the Jr. League, they tackle a real-world problem, but this time they also build a robot using LEGO® MINDSTORMS®. Once the robots are completed, Texas teams compete on a table-top playing field. This experience sharpens an array of life skills and qualities including critical thinking, team-building, presentation skills, and creativity.
Challenges and Competitions
The LEGO® Leagues are a warm-up to the main event: FIRST® Tech Challenges and Robotics Competitions. These programs are for grades 7-12 and 9-12, respectively.
- FIRST® Tech Challenge: Teams of 10 or more are instructed to create a robot concept, and then build and program their ideas into operational robots. The robots are designed to play a floor game that is both difficult and intensely fun. In addition to building, teams raise money, create and promote their team brand, and partake in community outreach. Students who participate in the Tech Challenge gain application access to large college scholarships.
- FIRST® Robotics Competition: This is the ultimate sport for young minds. FIRST® Robotics Competitions are the big leagues. Students must compete under strict rules, fewer resources, and a challenging six-week time limit. Teams of 20 or more must work together to construct and program an industrial-sized robot that will play a challenging field game against opponents. The teams must design a brand for their team, raise money, and do extensive community outreach. Professional mentors volunteer their time to guide the young engineers and participants will also gain access to a vast array of college scholarships.
How You Can Get Involved
If you have a passion for STEM education, there are many ways to get involved. You can become a mentor, volunteer at competitions, or support FIRST® in Texas financially with direct donations or contributions to continue to grow FIRST® programs across the Great State of Texas. Or simply contact FIRST® in Texas and introduce yourself! Together, we can bring the joy of STEM to every student in Texas.