Ten years ago, when Pavan and Sharon Vasudev started coaching the Beep Patrol, a FIRST Robotics team from Litchfield Park, they didn’t know what to expect. Today, the couple mentor and encourage K-12 children in the West Valley to be science and technology leaders and innovators.
“I’m an engineer, and I wanted to do something with my children that would help develop them. I heard about this program called FIRST LEGO League,” Pavan said. “We didn’t know what we were getting into, but jumped headfirst in. It was an amazing experience.”
That program is one of four research and robotics programs under FIRST Robotics, a worldwide, youth-serving nonprofit that helps young people discover a passion for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and develop skills they’ll need to succeed in today’s competitive workforce.
The four programs — First LEGO League Jr. (6-10), FIRST LEGO League (9-16), FIRST Tech Challenge (12-18) and FIRST Robotics Competition (14-18) — exhibit a series of team-based robotics challenges throughout the year, including designing, building, coding and operating Android smartphone-controlled robots, as well as industrial-size ones.
“The competitions are unlike anything else. They make the children feel like rock stars. What you see there is all the teams are cheering for each other. As much as there’s competition in wanting to have the best robot, it drives us to support the community,” Vasudev said.
That kind of attitude reflects some of FIRST Robotics’ philosophies, including that one of “Gracious Professionalism.” According to the nonprofit’s website, “Gracious Professionalism” is a way of doing things that encourages high-quality work, emphasizes the value of others and respects individuals and the community.
Unlike other STEM programs, FIRST Robotics is full-encompassing, Sharon said.
“We promote the entire engineering life cycle … promote what the industry calls soft skills; the business side. It’s just as important for these kids to learn to grow their business as it is for them to develop their tech skills,” she said.
Recently, the Beep Patrol, which is made up of more than 25 student team members, held a presentation at Arrowhead BMW for WESTMARC — the Western Maricopa Coalition — which supports six issue committees that focus on specific economic development workforce needs in the West Valley, including education and workforce development.
The team presented STEM, leadership, communication and other skills they’ve learned through the programs, Pavan said.
“The education committee, we’ve seen their strategic report where they talk about increasing STEM; increasing soft skills in students K-12. We know that (FIRST Robotics) is key to both of those together,” he said.
The students also talked about forming a STEM coalition between First Robotics, WESTMARC and other West Valley institutions, Pavan added.
According to Sharon, the East Valley outnumbers the West Valley when it comes to FIRST Robotics teams. For that reason, she encourages parents and the youth to get involved.
“It doesn’t matter your education or your skill set. There’s a place for you to mentor these kids,” she said. “You can add value to them.”
According to its website, a FIRST Robotics mentor can be a person of any age and can bring either technical or nontechnical expertise to the program.
To learn more about mentor opportunities and find local support, visit firstinspires.org.