January/February 2014
Special Section: FIRST Robotics

Growing future automation professionals

FIRST inspires and educates youth to become automation professionals

   Fast Forward

  • FIRST has innovative programs for young people to build self-confidence, learn, and acquire life skills that motivate them to pursue opportunities in science, technology, and engineering.
  • A young ISA member reflects on how her FIRST experience led to a career in the automation profession.
  • There are great opportunities to contribute time and talents to make a difference in young people's lives. 
By Bill Lydon

Special Section: Growing future automation professionalsDean Kamen, the founder of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) and CEO of DEKA Research & Development, has created an organization to energize young people to become science and technology heroes. The mission of FIRST is to inspire young people to be science and technology leaders, by engaging them in exciting mentor-based programs that build science, engineering, and technology skills, that inspire innovation, and that foster well-rounded life capabilities, including self-confidence, communication, and leadership. The FIRST Robotics and other programs are designed to accomplish this mission. The Automation Federation (AF) and ISA are supporting FIRST as strategic alliance partners.

FIRST's programs give young people knowledge and experience to make informed decisions about pursuing opportunities in science, technology, and engineering. With support from three out of every five Fortune 500 companies and $14 million in college scholarships, the not-for-profit organization hosts the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) and FIRST Tech Challenge for high-school students, FIRST LEGO League for nine- to 14-year-olds (nine- to 16-year-olds outside the U.S. and Canada), and Junior FIRST LEGO League for six- to nine-year-olds.

Why should you care?

Using technology to advance the economies of the world will require a pipeline of knowledgeable, motivated, and enthusiastic talent. Dr. Peter Martin, Invensys vice president, gave a passionate keynote at the ISA Automation Week 2013 conference, "The Future of Automation," describing how automation can solve the world's biggest challenges, including efficient energy, safe water, food production, health improvement, and a clean environment. For example, Martin noted over half a million babies a year die because of tainted water. That is inexcusable, since this can be changed with the application of technology. We need to motivate more young people to join the automation profession.

It works!

Danaca Jordan, staff engineer at a major chemical company and attendee of ISA Automation Week 2013, became interested in automation due to her FIRST Robotics experience. She related the excitement of those events. In preparation for each tournament, members of the CRyptonite team would dye their hair bright green. Parents, friends, and fans (i.e., siblings) would wave signs, wear green shirts, and throw beads while they cheered them on. She wore a nylon fluorescent green cape with the CRyptonite logo her FIRST team created. Also, the team had the disc jockey at the event blast the song "Kryptonite" by the music group 3 Doors Down every time their robot took the field. As a senior, she and the co-captain of the team would talk to the technology judges, selling them on the team's new designs while the driving team did last-minute maintenance. She noted that it has been a decade since she was a member of FIRST Robotics Team #624 from Cinco Ranch High School, but she still remembers the competitions and six-week robotic build phases as the most exciting part of high school. Jordan said this program was the reason she went into technology and earned a Bachelor of Science in chemical engineering at the University of Houston.

Special Section: Growing future automation professionals 2Reflecting on this experience, she really appreciates the entire crew of adults supporting their team that made the experience possible, including the teachers who helped them set up a special robotics study hall. They could build robots and write control programs on school time and equipment. One of their sponsors, Oceaneering, let them use its machine shop after hours. Oceaneering's staff would stay late in the evening to make sure they used the tools safely. She proudly exclaims, "I was one of the few 16-year old girls I knew who could both use a drill press and solder wiring. Other mentors from BP and various engineering firms would participate in marathon design sessions, each one trying to guide us away from the impossible without taking over our design." The team's parents eventually formed a booster club to support community events and help raise funding for ever-evolving designs. "Everyone made time to help us, and I didn't realize then how precious spare time is." She is thankful to all the people who helped.

After high school, one of the team's mentors helped secure her first engineering internship that helped her pay for college and launch her career. Jordan acknowledges she uses the skills learned in robotics daily for both technical efforts and project management in her role as a staff engineer. "Most importantly, robotics has provided the challenge and camaraderie to keep engineering and automation exciting for me," she explained. "It is my turn to support the upcoming engineers in training, and I can't wait."

Danaca Jordan is an active, contributing ISA member. She urges ISA members to find some way to share their experience with the future engineers and programmers who are in school now.

Strategic alliance

AF and ISA have formed a strategic alliance with FIRST. The purpose of this alliance is to build the next generation of automation professionals by promoting the importance of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) in K-12 education. Through this alliance, FIRST, AF, and ISA will mobilize their joint resources to collaborate and promote K-12 STEM education through after-school participation in the four FIRST robotics programs. ISA section members around the world are invited to contribute at the grass-roots level. Kamen stated the need for mentoring, "The importance of pairing our students with an engaged and accomplished group of engineering and automation professionals cannot be underestimated. Our students will get the opportunity to work with professionals whose work reflects the typical challenges and creative rigor that is at the heart of our program."

FIRST will assist the AF and ISA members and affiliates across the country with resources, such as instructional materials, guidelines for starting robotics teams, and marketing support. AF and ISA staff, members, and volunteers will be matched to FIRST affiliate and operational partners and will support events in their geographic areas to collectively build local collaboration. With help from FIRST, an earned recognition program will be established for AF community members participating in FIRST robotics.

Get involved

FIRST is about practical, experiential learning, and experienced ISA members can be valuable contributors, making a difference in the future careers of students. There are a number of ways ISA members can get involved in FIRST:

  • Volunteer at an event. Each competition depends on an abundance of volunteers with a broad spectrum of talents to support operating needs and competition demands.
  • Join an existing team. If you are interested in becoming a FIRST mentor, visit www.usfirst.org/whats-going-on to find events and teams in your area. You can attend a regional competition in your area to check it out. Attendance is free.
  • Connect. You can introduce yourself to the FIRST regional director near you (www.usfirst.org/regional-contacts).

The FRC is a major event that is a unique "varsity sport of the mind" that helps high-school-aged young people discover how interesting and rewarding the life of engineers and researchers can be. The FRC challenges teams of young people and their mentors to solve a common problem in six weeks using a standard "kit of parts" and a common set of rules. Teams build robots from the parts and enter them in competitions designed by Kamen, Dr. Woodie Flowers, and a committee of engineers and other professionals. FIRST redefines winning for these students, because they are rewarded for excellence in design, demonstrated team spirit, gracious professionalism, maturity, and the ability to overcome obstacles. Scoring the most points is a secondary goal. Winning means building partnerships that last. Visit www.usfirst.org for more information.


Bill Lydon is chief editor of InTech magazine. Lydon has been active in manufacturing automation for more than 25 years. He started his career as a designer of computer-based machine tool controls; in other positions, he applied programmable logic controllers and process control technology. In addition to experience at various large companies, he cofounded and was president of a venture-capital-funded industrial automation software company. Lydon believes the success factors in manufacturing are changing, making it imperative to apply automation as a strategic tool to compete.