When Amber Williamson was in high school she thought she had her future – as a doctor – sorted out. But when she attended a FIRST Robotics competition, an entirely different path opened up for her. “I was mildly interested in technology,” she says. “And a good friend of mine was on the team, so I decided to give it a shot.” But that lark and the six-week robot building competition it led to -- where a team of students, volunteers, and technical mentors build a functional robot -- she was hooked.
“I decided I wanted to be a mechanical engineer,” she says. She went on to the University of Arkansas, received her degree, and works in the engineering department at Baxter Healthcare Corp. In fact, that FIRST program, a non-profit that relies on volunteers and mentors with a knowledge of technology, science, and engineering changed her young life completely. “While I was on the team, I had a chance to spend time with a wonderful man who is now my husband.”
We all lament the lack of American women, minorities, and well, people, interested in pursuing a STEM career. According to the U.S. department of education, only 16 percent of American high-school seniors are proficient in mathematics and interested in a STEM career. But as Williamson’s data point of one suggests, we don’t have to overhaul the entire education system to fix this. (Well, we do – of course – but meanwhile ....) Maybe if we just treated science, technology, engineering, and math with the same enthusiasm we throw at after-school sports programs we could inspire more kids to persist at these subjects.
Are you toying with the idea of coaching soccer? Maybe you drive your kids to swim meets on the weekends, donate football jerseys to a Lacrosse league, or show up for softball games in your neighborhood. Why not throw “Robotics competition” onto that list of socially involved extra-curricular activities you might get involved in? There, at least, the skills you perfect every day at work might make you a hero with some kids – aged six to eighteen -- who may have no idea what it’s like to work in high-tech or engineering. Maybe you’ll change some kid's life?
Williamson is so grateful to the volunteers (not all roles here are technical) and mentors (the engineers and technical people who coach the robot building teams) for the inspiration and encouragement they gave her to pursue a career in engineering that she is a volunteer at FIRST. “The students come in without enough training so they aren’t confident,” she explains. “The engineers and machinists who mentor the team emphasize that it’s OK to not get it right the first time. And by the time the students are seniors, they are using the machinery and building the parts themselves, and are taking a lot more ownership of the robot.”
You can probably point to a person, event, class, or after-school program that helped you find your way into your work. How cool would it be to know that a bunch of successful scientists, engineers, or IT people are pointing to you as the person, -- the spark -- that helped them see what they want to do?
“Students need role models who can teach them what text books cannot,” says Williamson. “Having mentors provide tips and tricks on measuring, drilling, working with your hands, and how to be safe is invaluable. But they are also seeing our drive and passion for what we do, which is itself inspiring.”
Because, let’s be honest. How many professional soccer or Lacrosse players are your weekend sports efforts going to grow? They will certainly help kids stay fit and have fun. But will it change the course of those kids lives and give us more engineers and scientists?
“FIRST changed my life,” says Williamson. “I have a husband and a career that I love because of it. I am a mentor because I want to give back to this program.”