“The best advice I can
give is to pick a
competition series,
figure out how to pay
for the costs, and do
it,” says Pete Gegen.

Part ten in a series. “Voices of IBM Volunteers” is part of the SkillsBuild program to reach one million young people a year through STEM-related volunteering (the goal for 2018 was achieved in June). Watch the video (YouTube, 04:20)

The drive to close the global skills gap is among IBM’s most important initiatives. SkillsBuild calls on IBM volunteers to promote activities that enable digital literacy with young people, introduce them to hands-on problem solving, and sparks their interest in STEM learning—using resources and support on the IBM Volunteers web site.

In the series, IBM volunteers share their passion and perspective, in their own words, on what it means to be a volunteer and the positive impact we can all have on society.

IBM volunteer: Pete Gegen, IBM consulting services portfolio manager

Starting a Robotics Club

Robotics clubs are popular among students. They combine computer programming and mechanical engineering skills to create a tangible product.

But they are not cheap, and that is the first hurdle you face if you want to start a robotics club.

As I mentioned in the introductory article to this series on K-12 STEM volunteering, in 2011 I decided to start a FIRST LEGO League (FLL) robotics team with a USD 500 purchase of a LEGO Mindstorms NXT robot kit.

Two of my daughters agreed to be part of the club, and they recruited friends to join the team. We ended up with five 7th grade students and two 5th grade students.

I registered the club as a "neighborhood group" on the website, paid the registration fee, and purchased our first robot kit. While we’re called a club, we’re also a team—coming together to achieve a shared goal and celebrating our accomplishments.

Later I learned I also had to register the club with the FIRST organization in our state and pay another registration fee. The total cost for one kit, one robot game competition table and the registration fees was USD 875 (in 2017 that cost had increased to USD 950). I decided to split the cost of the registration fees and competition table with the students, but I would keep the robot kit as my own personal purchase and not charge the students for it.

That was enough to get started. We met in the basement of my home and used a ping pong table for the robot game table.

FLL is an intense program. You will be busy from August through early December. The first season was both fun and a struggle.

FIRST provides a lot of material to help new coaches and teams, but it takes a significant effort to run a robot club. And I quickly realized our first season would be a learning experience for me and the students. I suspect most volunteers running their first robotics team will go through a similar experience.

The reward comes at the FLL regional qualifiers. Students get a chance to show all the work they did. Our team finished dead last in the robot game, but throughout the competition they showed that they had done their own work and had learned a lot about robotics and engineering through the experience of preparing for the competition.

Since that first season, our group, which I named Rochester Rocket Robotics, has grown to five teams, 10 robot kits, a dedicated room at the local elementary school, and many wonderful parents volunteering to coach—some of whom never expected to be qualified to coach a robotics team but are doing a great job.

We have 20 to 30 students participate in the program each year. Our group remains independent of the school. We have expanded to add FIRST LEGO League Jr. (FLL Jr.) teams and we helped the high school start a FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) team. I don't think this expansion would have happened in our community if I hadn't taken the risk that first season.

FIRST is international and you can search for teams in your country or area. IBM Volunteers has written about several of my IBM colleagues in Turkey who have had success with FIRST—the volunteers received an IBM Volunteer Excellence Award in 2017!

However, I have since learned there are other robotics competition series that might be more popular depending on where you live.

An Internet search will undoubtedly give you numerous results to consider, but these could also be options for you: World Robotics Olympiad (WRO), VEX Robotics Competition, and Wonder League Robotics Competition. And local to where I live, the University of Illinois Extension runs a 4-H Robotics Competition every spring.

If you are thinking about starting a robotics club, or better yet, if you want students in your community to experience the engineering challenge of building and programming a robot, the best advice I can give is to pick a competition series, figure out how to pay for the parts and registration, and do it.

[Look for Pete’s next article to appear in October, “Starting a Coding Club.”]

For over 100 years, IBMers have created positive change in the world through their day-to-day work and their service in local communities. Since 2004, nearly 300,000 IBM employees and retirees have contributed more than 20 million hours of volunteer service.

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