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By Chuck Taylor
Grace Balut Ostrom's work provides the thrust that powers Boeing's biggest airplane. The propulsion engineer ensures that controls in the 747-8 flight deck send the proper signals to fire up the four engines.
Outside of work, Ostrom is trying to provide the spark to launch high school students into careers in science and technology.
Ostrom volunteers as a mentor for the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics team at Newport High School in Bellevue, Wash. Billed as the "varsity sport for the mind," FIRST Robotics pairs young people with professional engineers and others to develop a working robot. They travel to regional and national competitions to test their creation against those of other teams.
"We mimic a small company, with a president, a vice president of engineering, a vice president of marketing, and sub-groups that include build, electrical, programming, fundraising, visual design and public relations," Ostrom said. "It's a great program because it's not just the engineering side of it. It's like running a business."
Many students join FIRST knowing little about the electrical and mechanical concepts needed to build a robot. Over the course of the school year, the adult mentors walk the students through the build process and provide a connection between what students learn in the classroom and how it is applied in the real world.
Ostrom is "the glue that holds this team together," one student wrote in an essay nominating her for a mentoring award.
"You can really see the change you made in students as they go off to college," Grace Ostrom, FIRST Robotics mentor
Boeing has committed $4 million to the program, including money to help underserved schools, provide scholarships to select universities and engage hundreds of Boeing employees like Ostrom who serve as volunteers.
"Boeing has identified FIRST as one of our highest-impact partnerships," said Conrad Ball, the chief engineer for Boeing's defense operations in Washington state. Ball also helps coordinate Boeing's involvement in FIRST. "FIRST fosters a sustained relationship between the mentors and the kids."
"You can really see the change you made in students as they go off to college," said Ostrom.
Earlier this year, Ostrom won the mentoring award for the Pacific Northwest region. In April, she went to Atlanta to attend the world championship and to mind a Boeing booth where kids could learn about professional engineering challenges.
"One kid came by five times just to talk about engineering," she said. "It actually got to the point where he was trying to provide suggestions to me for how we could improve our airplanes."
And there was another student, a girl, who had doubts about her engineering aptitude. Ostrom shared what someone told her when she was younger: "If you think you want to go into engineering, you should just go for it."
"I feel like I paid back the favor," Ostrom recalled.
The Newport High School team didn't advance to the world championship, but its robot took "most creative" honors in the regional competition. The robot's features included a student-designed and -built tank drive, two-speed gearbox, variable strength ball-kicker able to score from any part of the field with camera targeting, gyroscopic navigation and a heads-up display.
Add to that list the fact the robot's creators had a variable-strength, heads-up mentor.