January/February 2012
Young Innovators

Getting involved with an ISA section

By Mat Merten

In January 2009, I became a licensed engineer. After the excitement wore off, I became concerned about how to get all my needed professional developmental hours (PDH). Although a member of ISA, I was not involved in the local section in Oak Ridge, Tenn., nor had I heard about anything going on with the section. I reached out to some of the local officers I found on the website and said I wanted to get involved. After meeting with the officers, we decided to kick-start the Oak Ridge Section and have monthly technical meetings. I volunteered to be the program chair, which essentially meant I became the face of the section.

The first few meetings were rough. Few people came, and the section was going through a lot of cash. However, we kept at it, and after a year, we got momentum going in the community, and now have upwards of 40 participants. Speakers have started reaching out to us because they know they will have a captive audience. We are really proud of how far the Oak Ridge Section has come.

Since this section began, I have personally gotten involved in FIRST Robotics, thanks to having attended ISA Automation Week 2010, where the keynote speaker, FIRST founder Dean Kamen, sparked my interest. A few months after that event, I was notified by the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE), another technical society that I am a member of, that a local regional competition of FIRST Robotics was going to be held in Knoxville, Tenn. In just a few days, I convinced the regional director that since I helped run the local section of ISA, I would be an excellent choice for a judge. The director agreed.

Annoor Academy Robotics Team (Mat Merten, bottom center) at Cruze Dairy Farm in Knoxville, Tenn. The team spent their time learning how milk is safely processed from beginning to end and specifically about pasteurization.

A judge's commitment is Thursday evening and all day Friday and Saturday. After spending 30 seconds on the game floor Thursday evening, I knew this event was an incredible opportunity and immediately thought it would be perfect for Amber Hodge, a marvelous teacher I previously had met while judging a science fair at a local Islamic school, Annoor Academy. (I learned about the science fair through yet another organization-the American Nuclear Society.) I was not able to contact Hodge until late Friday night, but sent her an e-mail anyway telling her she had to come and see it herself. My expectations were low that she would come since it was so last minute, but she said she would be there. We met the next day, and I showed her around the floor and pits. At that moment, she was hooked, and we both committed to starting a team at Annoor.

Starting a FIRST team is tough, but after many long meetings, parental discussions, fundraising (yes, the ISA Oak Ridge Section is an official sponsor), table building, field trips, and robot troubleshooting, we have a team we literally could not be more proud of. Only in elementary school, the children have learned and come together as a team beyond our wildest expectations. We have appointed a Team Captain, Hardware Captain, Software Captain, and Project Captain. These children have already learned about many valuable technical topics from motors, power, trigonometry, to even food safety, which was the theme the kids had to research in 2011. Outside the world of the team, the kids have more self-confidence with their new technical prowess, and they are envied by their classmates who are not on the team. Each has taken incredible ownership, and we are so proud of them.

Two main points: I have gained a tremendous amount, professionally and more important personally, from being involved in technical societies. Being a coach of a robotics team has been simply a wonderful experience, and there is no way this chain of events would have occurred if not for ISA and working with many other people. Second, the local ISA Sections can be a force of good in the community, not only from a technical and business knowledge sharing standpoint, but also from a giving back to the community standpoint.

The Oak Ridge Section may not be the best ISA section out there, but it is improving. Our goals for 2012 are to have a high-quality website, host a vendor's fair, present 10 technical presentations, and my personal favorite, become the official sponsors of multiple FIRST Robotics teams throughout the community. We are getting there and encourage others to get involved with their local ISA sections as well.


Mat Merten, P.E., is the Federal/Nuclear Engineering manager for BESCO in Oak Ridge, Tenn. He is involved in various organizations throughout the community and is the most passionate about his Robot Kids.