How a Non-Engineer Found Her Niche in a Robotics Club
Nine and a half years ago, my now-husband convinced me to give up all of my free-time for four months of the year to mentor high school students as they build a 100+ lb. robot to compete with teams from around the world. I didn’t know where my contribution would come from as the sole non-technical mentor. Coming off of a marketing internship, I was ready to put my branding and marketing experience to good use. Luckily, I soon realized all skills are special and needed – especially in a high school robotics program. This has been a humbling but rewarding volunteer opportunity to meet, teach, and learn from high school students and other mentors. This season has been especially rewarding thanks to the support I have received from YourCause through volunteer time off (VTO). I can dedicate even more time to practices, community service, competitions, and incredible events like the World Championships.
What I Do
I volunteer for FIRST, which stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, a nonprofit organization that introduces all ages of children to STEM education through the use of robotics. I mentor a local High School team called Eagle Robotics. To better understand FIRST, here’s a brief overview of all of the elements the students experience, “Under strict rules, limited resources, and an intense six-week time limit, teams of students are challenged to raise funds, design a team “brand,” hone teamwork skills, and build and program industrial-size robots to play a difficult field game against like-minded competitors. It’s as close to real-world engineering as a student can get. Volunteer professional mentors lend their time and talents to guide each team. Each season ends with an exciting FIRST Championship”. In the 2018 FIRST Robotics Competition alone, there were 3,650 teams and over 91,000 participants aged 14-18.
Like many NPO’s, each contributor wears multiple hats. I coach the students through the written awards, business presentations, marketing, fundraising, etc. I also founded a booster club to support the team. In addition to STEM topics and skills, the team gets the opportunity to learn and apply soft skills like time management and conflict resolution that are applicable in any future career path.
Why I Do It
I continue to volunteer with FIRST because I believe in their mission to create inspiration and recognition around science and technology. Beyond that, I get the opportunity to work with amazing students and support future leaders as they prepare for college and careers. Here are the reasons why several of our student and mentor members stay involved:
- “I used to think that I couldn’t be an engineer. FIRST showed me that was far from the truth. If anything, I can build anything I can imagine.” – Rave; Student
- “FIRST is a program that allows students to experience real-world engineering in an environment that is fun and immersive as well as beneficial towards future careers in STEM.” – Jonathan; Student
- “I volunteer because I experience first-hand the shortage of engineering talent daily. I want to inspire the next generation, especially girls and minorities, to consider a STEM-based career. I also do this in memory of my little brother, hoping that I can save a life by being a good role model and caring adult.” – Greg; Mentor
How You Find & Serve Within Your Niche
Start with your interests and passions: The most important piece of finding your niche is starting with something you enjoy and are passionate about. Given the increasingly busy nature of our lives, making time to add another activity into the mix can be difficult. However, if you are using the skills that excite you in an area you already enjoy, chances are you’ll find the time flies and energizes you!
Search outside the traditional volunteer box: Once you have identified your passion and cause, don’t limit yourself to looking for options in the traditional volunteer opportunities. There are lots of opportunities for small, local NPO’s and groups that need help. There are so many ways to give aside from money and time – maybe it’s preparing meals or helping design an advertisement to bring more people to a fundraiser. Asking around and being open to non-traditional ways of helping can be a great way to make a difference.
Everyone’s skills are special and needed: Some of your most valuable skills you bring to the table won’t be in the area you signed up for. When I joined the robotics team, they initially offered me anything deemed “not engineering”; it was overwhelming and not the fun I was expecting. However, through my own research and talking to other mentors, I realized there was a need for someone to help them brand and market the team, which is one of my passions. I also wanted to use my skills to start the team’s booster club. Running a booster club for a high school robotics team or any NPO requires a lot of different skills and all unique talents are a great addition. Much like the skills I came with, some of the most appreciated skills on our team lie outside the realm of engineering – sewing skills, website design, meals, or organizing events behind the scenes – all help to make the team run more smoothly.
I Don’t Want to Be the Only One
I hope this inspires you to find an organization that sparks your passion to share your skills and enthusiasm with others!
If your passion aligns with mine, remember that wherever you are, there’s a team that would LOVE to have your unique talents. If you are interested in sharing your skills and enthusiasm with students in your area, or getting your children involved, you can search for teams near you. FIRST has a variety of programs available for students ages 6 and up.