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Nonprofits build bridges with schools

Company employees coach robotics teams

In many partnerships that bring businesses and schools together, a private or nonprofit third party serves as a bridge to the most successful collaborations.

For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) offers extracurricular STEM activities, including an international high school robotics competition, to more than 400,000 K12 students nationwide, with mostly school-based robotics or younger LEGO League teams in 86 countries.

FIRST’s school programs are funded through government entities, public and private foundations, and international corporations, such as National Instruments, Boeing and NASA.

In Texas, FIRST hosts about 100 high school robotics teams, many of them sponsored in part by international tech company National Instruments.

Many company employees are mentors or coaches to FIRST teams, and it provides software for LEGO Leagues and donates a controller for each of the robotics teams, says Ray Almgren, a member of FIRST’s national executive advisory board.

Volunteer coaching allows engineers to share their expertise and educate the next generation workforce. “FIRST helps engineers give back to the community in something they’re really talented in,” Almgren says. “They’re showing these kids what it’s like to solve a complicated technical problem and see the real human element.”

In competitions, for example, a robot often malfunctions and students lean on mentors for help, Almgren says. “That’s when the mentor really shines, because the pressure is so high,” he says. “The kids look toward them for guidance, comfort and reassurance when the heat is on.”