The energy in the packed high school gymnasium was electric as an enthusiastic crowd cheered on their favorite competitors. The gym in Auburn, Wash., had been converted into a massive obstacle course where large blocks were lifted and tossed at breakneck speed during a series of rigorous duels.
But this competition was not a test of athletic prowess. Rather, it was one of many intense rounds during a Washington district competition of For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) — and the competitors were robots created and operated by student teams.
One competitor was high school freshman Pranuti Kalidindi of the Iron Patriots, her school's FIRST team. She said she joined to expand upon her interest in engineering but quickly found she learned more than just academics.
“The skills you learn — related to robots or not — they’re just life skills you should know when you’re outside of high school or anywhere in general,” she said.
Boeing has partnered with FIRST for a decade and provides over $1 million of support each year. Beyond the financial support, hundreds of Boeing employees and retirees mentor more than 10,000 students affiliated with 550 FIRST teams nationwide. Of that total, 150 teams are located in Washington state.
Boeing Technical Fellow and Tanker engineer Doug Chappelle is one of several Boeing employees currently mentoring Kalidindi and her Iron Patriot teammates. He said it’s an honor to help kids prepare for a future involving STEM skills.
“They get exposure to professionals who are working in engineering. They get to do business planning. They get to do organizing,” Chappelle said. “They get to learn how to use machine tools, not just for an exercise but for something they’ve envisioned that’s real and has to work.”
Boeing is committed to programs like FIRST that help students learn the design, engineering and manufacturing skills that are critical in the workforce of tomorrow, said Gina Breukelman, Boeing Global Engagement senior manager.
“It’s really important for us to support those types of programs that are giving experiential learning opportunities to students so that they’re ready for their future careers and for their future education," she said.
Erin McCallum, president of FIRST Washington agreed, explaining that Boeing and its employees are critical to helping FIRST achieve its goal of making STEM skills and competitions commonplace.
“Every kid has the opportunity to play this sport of science, technology and teamwork because there’s a job out there,” McCallum said. “They can go pro. They can work for companies like Boeing.”
By Deborah Feldman and Joshua Green