FIRST Robotics Competition, 2017 New England District. (Courtesy photo.)

FIRST Robotics Competition, 2017 New England District. (Courtesy photo.)

Without FIRST, ‘I wouldn’t be an engineer’

Elizabeth Heath on how a nonprofit organization changed the course of her life, and how she is paying it forward

When I was a high school sophomore, 15 years ago, I really had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.  I liked science, but I had no idea what that meant in terms of college, or a career. Science and tech were more for boys, right? One of my friends insisted I go to this “robotics meeting” thing after school, and I went, just to get him off my back. Well…that “robotics thing” turned out to be one of the greatest turning points of my life. It was a meeting of the Hollis Brookline High School FIRST Robotics Competition Team 1073. I was welcomed with open arms.

FIRST, For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, is a globally recognized nonprofit headquartered in Manchester. Founded by New Hampshire inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen, FIRST has programs for kids from kindergarten through high school, with a goal of getting FIRST into every New Hampshire school. FIRST also offers scholarships for students around the world to participate in STEM learning programs.

At the robotics team meetings, I got to actually apply things I had learned in school, to work together on physical projects, and to gain experience side-by-side with professional engineers, who were our mentors. Labs in school are synthetic ways to use academic concepts. Defining risk, prototyping, designing, building, and testing a 150-pound robot are real hands-on experiences that simply didn’t happen in the classroom. I learned how to use a drill press, how to solder wires, how to analyze data with spreadsheets. With my fellow students, I had to raise enough money to buy the robot parts for the team, pay for the competition registrations, and feed the team during our long build hours. I had to solve problems and think systematically with people I never would have thought I could work with. I thought to myself, ‘I may not be the very top student in math class, but I know I’m smart, motivated, and I know I can solve these problems!’

Which led me to this realization: ‘This is what being an engineer is like. I can be an engineer. I will be an engineer. Let’s do this!’

I wanted to make a difference and do something with my life like our FIRST mentors were. I realized that I could be that person for other students. I want to inspire. I want to try everything and be involved in all the disciplines. I didn’t want to just do one kind of engineering, I was fascinated by the entire system of people, the team, the robot, and loved the competitions that were the culmination of it all.

During my senior year of high school, I led our team, and the following year I was enrolled in my freshman year of college for a Bachelor’s in Electromechanical Engineering with a concentration in Biomedical Systems Engineering. I mentored my home team through my college years, started another team near my college, had incredible internships at companies, and graduated with my engineering degree in 2011. I was one of two women in my graduating class. I continued mentoring my home team, and entered the workforce as soon as I could secure an engineering job. I’ve worked at robotics and medical device companies, including Dean Kamen’s company, DEKA, in the Manchester Millyard.

Now, 15 years after attending my first high school robotics meeting, I’m a professional validation engineer working on capital expenditure equipment (think big manufacturing machines and industrial robots) for a New Hampshire manufacturing facility. I am mentoring the Hollis-Brookline FIRST team and working on my MBA in Engineering Management at Southern New Hampshire University. I never would be where I am today had it not been for FIRST. As a NH FIRST alumni, and a NH FIRST mentor, I cannot speak highly enough of this nonprofit program. Without it, I wouldn’t be an engineer, nor would I have inspired the hundreds of students I’ve worked with in the last decade.

 

Follow the Hollis Brookline FIRST team on Facebook and at Twitter (@FRC1073). The team will be competing at the University of New Hampshire on March 30th and 31st

The Charitable Foundation is a proud supporter of FIRST.