SkillsBuild: US retiree helps students shape their future with robotics

Jack Manning
Bob Steps (right)
with a former student
and robotics team member
who recently graduated
from the Naval Academy.

Jack Manning
Bob Steps (right)
with a former student
and robotics team member
who recently graduated
from the Naval Academy.

Sixty-five percent of today’s school children will be employed in jobs that don’t exist yet, according to a United States Department of Labor report from 2013.

Combine that prediction with another from tech industry analyst Gartner: by 2025 three out of 10 jobs will be converted to software, robots or smart machines. And you have a situation that Bob Steps, an IBM retiree turned school teacher, has been preparing his students for since 2002; getting them ready for “new collar jobs” well before the expression was coined.

After thirty-three years at IBM, Bob started his second career as an educator teaching physics, math and general science to 10th, 11th and 12th grade students at SciTech High School in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

“By the time I started teaching I was 61 years old,” says Bob, who has a degree in physics and had been working on a master’s degree in math when he joined IBM as a systems engineer.

“At first the students did not know how to approach me, but what they saw was someone who really cared about them. I was clearly seen as different given that I was about 35 years older than other teachers.”

Giving students a boost

Soon after joining SciTech High School, Bob looked for ways beyond the traditional classroom to engage his students.

“I wanted to add more value to the school in addition to teaching so, I started exploring alternatives and robotics came my mind,” he recalls.

Doing something with robotics worked well with Bob’s role as a science teacher and his background at IBM, and would likely appeal to students in a school with science and technology in its name.

Plus, Bob found an established program at the right price.

“BEST, which stands for Boosting Engineering Science and Technology, is a school-based program that is free, which appealed to me,” Bob says. Equipment and materials are provided at no cost to schools in the program.

In BEST, teams have six weeks to build robots engineered to complete certain tasks. Then teams from the local area, and eventually the country, gather to have their robots compete.

Several categories of awards are given at competitions, but the real point is to stimulate and inspire a practical interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). A core value of BEST is that students are the sole participants and primary decision-makers, designers and builders.

“The robotics program has always been an after-school program,” says Bob. “In the case of BEST, heavy adult support is frowned on. It’s about the students learning by doing. At events when a robot breaks they expect the kids to fix it.”

Bob says his students were highly competitive. In 2006, the SciTech team had the top robot and competed in the eastern regional championship hosted by Auburn University. Six years later they were again a top three in the area and went back to the regional championships.

From BEST to FIRST, but about more than robots

The robotics program became popular among students, but around 2011, because of reasons beyond his control, Bob had to look for another program.

“I had a lot of kids who wanted to continue robotics, so I was motivated to figure it out.” He transitioned the team to the "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology" (FIRST) robotics program.

Even though FIRST still emphasizes inspiring young people to pursue STEM, some important elements are different.

“The major differences are it’s a six month event instead of six weeks and it costs at least $2000 to have a basic team,” says Bob. “Also, it’s mostly a family and friends focused program, and encourages direct adult help and support.”

Despite the differences, Bob’s approach to mentoring the team didn’t really change. “My job is education, not winning.”

However, many of his students did win—though in more than robotics.

“I have former robot team members that have graduated from Penn State, MIT, Harvard and Carnegie Mellon,” says Bob. “They’ve gone on to STEM careers.”

One of his students was a member of the robotics team for all four years at SciTech and went on to graduate from the Naval Academy. At the young man’s “Anchors Away” party, in a backyard full of friends, family and neighbors, Bob was the only teacher invited to join them.

SkillsBuild—and retirement, part 2

In some cases, Bob says that several of his students ended up in STEM careers but without college—which is the very definition of a new collar job.

The IBM SkillsBuild initiative calls on IBM volunteers to promote activities that enable digital literacy with young people and introduce them to hands-on problem solving—to get them ready for possible new collar careers.

Smartly, during Bob’s time as a volunteer leading the robotics program, he tapped into IBM Community Grants—for which IBM retirees and employees are eligible.

“Over the last 12 years, IBM has awarded my school about $40,000 in support of the robot team,” he says. “Without this support the move from BEST to FIRST would never have happened.”

Bob will be retiring—again—later in 2018, having educated a generation of students in his second career as a teacher and volunteer.

“I have solid transition plans for the robotics program, with the Harrisburg Public School Foundation providing about $7000 a year and a very committed teacher ready to take leadership.”

He adds, “I never imagined that I would ever work in an inner city school and it turned into a real blessing for me.”

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