The Research Triangle Park

Partner Profile: Q and A with NC FIRST Robotics

By Dec 18, 2014

This post is part of the series Partner Profiles, where US2020 RTP shares the story of how our nonprofit, corporate, school, and university partners are contributing to a STEM education community of practice. Marie Hopper is the Executive Director of NC FIRST Robotics. I sat down with her to talk about how STEM professionals can get involved in mentoring.

What professional development do mentors get from working with students?

STEM professionals will gain so much from mentoring. Working with kids K-12 is one of the most exciting things that a STEM professional could ever do. You’re going to learn not only about yourself and the children, but about your own field. You learn best when you have to teach someone your knowledge. So in the process of transferring what you know about your STEM profession, you’re going to learn even more about it. The kids will ask you questions that you’re not expecting, and you’ll have to research the topic—because of course you want to look smart in front of the kids—so you’re going to learn all of these out-of-the-box, cutting edge ways of looking at your field.

How does mentoring differ across age groups?

NC FIRST Robotics is K-12. Our program for K-3 is Junior FIRST LEGO League, where students build models out of LEGO. So if you mentor early elementary, it’s more of a play opportunity. When you’re working with that age group, expertise is not really required. What’s more important is being willing to indulge their curiosity. When you’re at the next age group—upper elementary and middle school—now students want to push a little more. They’re really interested in what STEM professionals do. For some STEM professions, especially computer programmering, that’s a little bit difficult for kids to wrap their heads around. So if you can make what you do concrete and hands-on, that’s going to really inspire them. When you’re mentoring high school students, now you can get more technical and go deeper. With those students, you’re helping them see the path from high school to a STEM career.

What advice would you give to a STEM professional mentoring for the first time?

The main piece of advice I would give to a first-time mentor is to be curious. Have an open mind. Don’t feel like you need to have all the answers and be the expert. More importantly, you should model for kids that it’s okay to ask a question or say, “I don’t know the answer, how do we find the answer?” If you go in with an open mind and be open for curiosity, you’re going to be great.

Do mentors need experience in robotics to be an NC FIRST mentor?

One of the things we hear a lot is, “Oh, mentoring sounds really cool, but I don’t know anything about robotics. I can’t be a mentor.” Yes you can! Engineering is about a way of thinking more than the technical knowledge to build a robot. You as an engineer can help kids learn how to ask questions, answer questions, fail, analyze that failure, and pick up and move on. We need all kinds of mentors for our robotics team to teach them how to problem solve, work as a team, raise money, and write a business plan. We aren’t just looking for mentors who are mechanical engineers and computer programmers, we’re looking for mentors who know how to run a business and be excited—your excitement is what’s most contagious.

Can you speak to US2020’s community of practice?

One of the great things about US2020 is the ability to build a coalition and create new partnerships. Kids need variety. They need lots of choice and options. When we have a coalition, and we have a student or parent come to us and say, “My child is interested in x, y, and z,” we have the ability to say, “Hey, have you heard of this program or partner?” By having relationships within our coalition, it opens more doors and broadens the horizon; it gives our kids, mentors, and state more options. A coalition raises the water in the canal so that all of our boats float higher.

To check out NC FIRST Robotics mentor opportunities, visit our mentor matching platform.

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