This article discusses about Nightline, a robotics competition in which teams of students and engineers built robots that competed against each other in a sports-style event known as FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). Creativity, communication, project management, partnerships, and a fundamental re-energizing of the engineering spirit are among the benefits that engineers and their supervisors describe as side effects of their involvement. While access to a future employee pool may be the reason that many organizations decide to get involved with FIRST, those side benefits are the reason most of them continue to participate. In many respects, FIRST has been turning out to be a fountain of youth. When hiring engineers, defense contractors have the added hurdle of getting their employees security clearance.
In the early 1990s, when NASA's mission to Mars began to move forward with increasing speed, Dave Lavery found himself pulling more and more robotics engineers and researchers at the agency's Jet Propulsion Lab away from their projects to work on Pathfinder and its rover, Sojoumer. Soon, however, he and others in his department noticed they had a problem. The more engineers Lavery assigned to work on Pathfinder, the fewer proposals for new research projects were turned in. As Lavery and his staff looked into why, they discovered a situation that was also creating difficulties for U.S. industry and for which no immediate solution, that they could see, existed.
"Nobody was doing research for the next generation," said Lavery, who is program executive for NASA's Space System Exploration. "The human talent pool wasn't large enough that we could backfill."
American colleges and universities were not graduating enough people with expertise in engineering and science to fill the vacancies either in government agencies like NASA or in industry. Concern among engineers began to grow. If the lack of engineering talent didn't put the very stability of companies and industries at risk, it would certainly stunt their growth.
At about the time Lavery was considering how to solve NASA's talent pool problem, some kids in his Reston, Va. neighborhood happened to see a segment on "Nightline" about a robotics competition in which teams of students and engineers built robots that competed against each other in a sports- style event known as FIRST, For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.
In a scenario that is typical of many FIRST teams, those kids turned to a neighbor of theirs, Dave Miller, for some insight into how they could get involved. Miller, who had worked with Lavery at JPL, contacted the NASA program executive for help in forming a FIRST team.
Eight years and 200 NASA-sponsored FIRST teams later, Lavery sees the light at the end of the tunnel growing brighter, illuminating the reasons that the number of organizations supporting FIRST has multiplied some 17 times since the competitions began in 1992.
Creativity, communication, project management, partnerships, and a fundamental re-energizing of the engineering spirit are among the benefits that engineers and their supervisors describe as side effects of their involvement. While access to a future employee pool may be the reason that many organizations decide to get involved with FIRST, those side benefits are the reason most of them continue to participate.
As Lavery explained, supporting FIRST "is good at about 14 different levels."
The pool of engineers around Grandville, Mich., is frequently drained by the large automakers in nearby Detroit. So X-Rite's chief executive officer, Rich Cook, knew that restocking the talent pool would be a priority. He had just stepped into the CEO position in 1998 when a manufacturing engineer on staff, Natalie Lowell, told him about a student robotics event that the company should support.
Cook went to a local FIRST competition and saw a feeder system that would get new engineering talent into his company and would serve as a mechanism for pushing the creative buttons of engineers on staff. "Our Company is built on intellectual capital," he said of X-Rite, which produces precision devices and processes that enhance the measurement of color, light, and shape.
Cook wanted to get the pot of creativity boiling. When he saw a FIRST competition, he had already initiated a cultural change from a traditional hierarchical structure to one that was governed by collegiality and communication. But neither would improve at X-Rite unless the barrier between the engineering side and the company's manufacturing side was dismantled. Watching the FIRST competition, Cook said that he thought, "This type of event will help with the change." X-Rite engineers said it did.
"There was always a wall between engineering and manufacturing," said Dan Deprekel, who has worked as a mechanical engineer at X-Rite for 29 years. After four years working with FIRST teams, he said, "Now it's gone."
According to Deprekel, "There's a whole different attitude. There's more openness. That's benefited X-Rite greatly." Currently, he is the mechanical engineering resource manager who oversees the company's research and development department. He attributes the new attitude and openness to what he and h is colleagues learned through FIRST. Among competitors, he said, "I've never been in a situation where people are so willing to help other people."
With the wall down, Lowell, who has worked at X-Rite for eight years, said engineers who once had been separated by divisions between departments are working together on company projects in a way they never had before.
Lowell said that, working together on FIRST, "You were able to see their talent, and they were able to see yours." Over the years, Deprekel noticed other changes in his FIRST team colleagues. They are more outgoing. They seem re-energized in their attitude toward engineering and, thus, their work. "It's the same for me," he added.
Working with the students "makes you want to go back to school again," Deprekel said. In the fall, he plans to enroll for a math refresher course, at least, because "you gotta keep up with these kids."
Lowell, who became director of the FIRST West Michigan Regional five years ago, spends 25 hours a week-not including holidays and vacation time--working on FIRST. She said the energy and initiative that engineers rediscover through working on FIRST ends up back in the workplace.
After working with an X-Rite project engineer on the FIRST team, Lowell was able to complete a proposal from concept to build-to reduce cycle time and setup. Lowell said that, prior to FIRST, she could only have contributed a piece to the proposal. Because the proposal was so detailed, more was tracked and the proposed reduction times in both cases nearly doubled.
That is the kind of result that CEO Cook had expected. It explains why he doesn't keep track of where the X-Rite- sponsored teams place in competitions. "I'm looking at how the employees respond," he said.
Understanding his engineers and making sure they are happy is the key to retention, Cook said. He continually monitors the engineers to make sure they're satisfied. He added, "Whenever they work on a team, they'll show a skill set I didn't know they had."
Sometimes, it's a skill set that the engineers didn't realize they had, either. Deprekel got an unexpected surprise when he found himself carrying his FIRST experience out of the workplace and into the home front. "I gained more respect for my three boys through this program," he said of his adult sons.
"I talk to my boys differently," he explained. ''I'm more sensitive. I listen better than I did before." And when his FIRST team competes regionally, Deprekel's sons "are always there to support my team. I think that's pretty special."
Engineering activities that could bring families together in the same way they gather for sporting events are part of the cultural change that inventor Dean Kamen, FIRST's founder and an ASME member, decided would be needed to end the talent pool drought. His idea for bringing about that change was to take me spotlight aimed at entertainers and sports figures, and redirect it at the activities of engineers and scientists.
Borrowing from sports competitions, the FIRST framework involves giving each team a kit with parts and a six week build cycle, to create robots that will compete against each other to perform a specified task that changes each year. But as engineers involved frequently say, the competition is not about winning in the usual sense.
It didn't take long for Henry Walaszczyk, an electrical engineer at Applied Materials who advises a FIRST team, to realize that "winning the tournament is not the point at all." For engineers supporting the teams as well as for the students, he said, FIRST is an opportunity to compete in a cycle of learning. "FIRST is a great program," Walaszczyk said, "because there are a lot of ways to get success."
Fountain of Youth
In many respects, FIRST is turning out to be a fountain of youth.
In his six years of working with FIRST teams, Ric Roberts noticed an interesting effect on the experienced engineers who worked with students on the Raytheon-supported teams. Their productivity and creativity for Raytheon increased. "For older engineers," he said, "they become young again."
Through FIRST, Roberts hopes that his annual problem of finding dozens of qualified engineers to fill openings in Raytheon's electronics systems center in El Segundo, Calif., will be solved soon. Whenever Roberts has to replace an employee lost through attrition or to another defense contractor, he competes with the likes of Boeing, Northrop Grununan, and TRW for a limited number of engineers. And when anyone of the companies lands a big contract, the vise tightens on everyone in the area with staffing responsibilitie.
When hiring engineers, defense contractors have the added hurdle of getting their employees security clearance. Although engineers who aren't U.s. citizens can be called upon to fill slots, Roberts said that getting them the necessary security clearances is difficult.
Looking five to 10 years down the road, Roberts said the outlook for Raytheon and every other company dependent on the engineering community is even bleaker, as thousands of baby-boomer engineers like Roberts retire. "That's the really scary part," he said.
Hope arrived six years ago in the form of FIRST. Since hearing about FIRST through his son's home-schooling academy, Roberts has worked on a team with his son and campaigned within his department to get more working engineers to support one of Raytheon's 12 teams. "The more we can get involved in engineering early," Roberts said, "the better our chances of capturing them later on."
Although the pipeline from student to qualified engineer is about eight years long, Roberts said two students on his team this year asked him about summer internships. Although they asked in April, too late for Roberts to help them this year, he said, "That's the beginning."
As the director for FIRST's Silicon Valley Regional and Soumern California Regional, part of Jason Morrella's job is to sell the idea of FIRST to executives of companies not already involved. Experience tells Morrella that all he needs to do is get an executive to attend a local event.
"Until people see it, they don't understand the scope," he said. "They don't know how big this event is and the impact that it has. Once they see it, they don't need to be sold."
What those executives learn later, Morrella said, is that "engineers learn almost as much from the kids as the kids learn from the engineers." Engineers learn "leadership skills, how to manage a team, and how to have patience and respect in a nurturing atmosphere," Morrella said. "Executives see this as their way to train people who they think have the potential for management."
At NASA, Lavery sees the management potential as so important that he is mulling over how to make involvement with FIRST an agency in-house training program. Without it, the arm-twisting method he used for getting the maximum involvement of engineers on programs he supervised probably wouldn't work in other departments. "Some of them had to be dragged kicking and screaming;' he said of engineers. "I told them, 'If you want money for your robotics program, you have to have a FIRST team.
His first year on a team, Lavery learned that FIRST was an exercise in project management. "If you can supervise a FIRST project, with some success, in six weeks, you've learned how to manage a project," Lavery explained. "The professionals are learning just as much, if not more than the students. It's an extraordinary training program for us."
Management training was one reason that Delphi Automotive in Kokomo, Ind., decided to invest in FIRST in 1992, when Andy Baker was a new hire there. Alongside the community service and outreach to high school students, the company saw a training vehicle, Baker said. But that's not why he decided to get involved with a FIRST team. Competitive by nature, he said he was interested in nothing more than the pure joy of competing with other engineers across the United States in a design capacity. "A very self-centered reason," he said.
Vacation for the Brain
Baker, who is a mechanical engineer, said he remains involved for the chance to mentor the kids and to be mentored by them. "I've learned tons from this," Baker said. "I've probably learned more from this than from getting a master's."
Through his work with FIRST, his engineering knowledge has become more well-rounded, Baker said. He's learned more about fabrication, which he said makes him a better designer. And, he added, his FIRST involvement has made him more visible within the company. On a personal level, "I think I enjoy my job more-even the mundane projects," he said. Although his involvement with FIRST takes a lot of time and effort, he said it ends up being "a vacation for the brain."
Engineers said they see signs that the cultural change Kamen envisioned is taking hold. Already, X-Rite and Delphi have hired several people from the teams to work as interns or as full-time engineers. Although the NASA team members are still a few years away from the Ph.D. level the agency needs, Lavery, who tracks hundreds of students formerly on the teams, said about three-quarters of them indicate they plan to make engineering or science a career.
One of them is already working for Raytheon, although not in Roberts' area. While Roberts is content to wait a few years until the FIRST students he knows will graduate, he is left to wonder about the one who got away-the son through whom Roberts came face to face with FIRST six years ago. While his son continues to work on FIRST teams and likes engineering, his focus hasn't strayed from a career path he encountered 15 years ago. "He wants to be a firefighter," Roberts said.
While Roberts said he is proud that his son made an informed choice, he wonders how different that choice might have been if, when his son was 3, Roberts had taken him to the NASA exhibit at Disneyland instead of to the local firehouse.