In 2011 FIRST Robotics is staging its 20th championship and much has changed from the original competition. Back in 1992 28 teams competed in a high school gym in New Hampshire. This year more than 2,000 teams and 250,000 students from around the country are taking part in the action with the championship taking place in the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis. In 2011 72 teams are sponsored by General Motors.
FIRST Robotics was founded by inventor Dean Kamen. The acronym FIRST represents For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. In other words, getting kids to see the fun they can have and the good they can do with science and technology.
One of the GM-sponsored FIRST teams is #67 called the Heroes of Tomorrow (HOT) from Milford, Michigan. This team is the back-to-back FIRST Robotics World Champion, winning in 2009 and 2010. Gina Sweet was part of the HOT team in 2001 and she’s still part of the team today. Obviously she’s no longer in high school, but now she’s a mentor to the students on the team. Why does she volunteer about a dozen weekends a year to help students? Gina says “This program changed my life. I really didn’t know what I was going to do when I was first exposed to the FIRST program. I got a focus on what I wanted to do and what was realistic for me.”
Gina’s dad, Russ, a retired GM engineer is doing more than ever with the HOT team. At least two days a week he’s with the students after class for about three hours, and on Saturdays it’s about eight hours of work building and refining their robot. That’s quite a commitment for a retiree. Russ says, “I do it because I want to give the kids an opportunity to show what they have. Not everybody’s going to be an engineer, but maybe they’ll be an electronics technician.”
Gina’s experience with FIRST Robotics taught her that she could be an engineer and today she works at the GM battery test lab at the Warren Tech Center, alongside Scott Herz, whom we profiled in Faces of GM last year. They are working on the next generations of GM’s hybrid and electric battery systems.
You might assume that Russ talked Gina into trying FIRST Robotics, but they say it was exactly the opposite. Russ says Gina signed up for FIRST and then he got involved working with the HOT team.
While both father and daughter talk about the value of being a mentor to the students, Gina admits she also does it because it’s fun. She says, “I’m a giant geek and I still like to see all the robots.”