NJ FIRST Robotics Club Inspires Students to Pursue STEM with Innovative Competition
Robots are a fantastic way to get students exposed to the STEM field early in their lives.
One way to encourage participation is to have them join a robotics team/club and take part in competitions. Adding a competitive element allows there to be a more compelling reason to explore their passion for engineering, technology, and even business development. Modern robotics clubs are often designed like a business, with a C-suite that leads the team, engineers, students that handle the programming and electronics, and even public relations-focused team members.
There has been a massive push by both the public and private sector to increase the exposure of robotics teams across the nation and members of the host committee, Robotics of Bound Brook & Ethicon (R.O.B.B.E.), FRC Teams 56, 75, 102 and 3637 are looking to accomplish that goal by hosting the first ever Raritan Valley Robot Rumble. This unique event is a part of the Raritan Valley Science & Technology Showcase (RVSTS) taking place at the popular mall, Bridgewater Commons on October 1 and 2.
The main purpose of R.O.B.B.E.’s decision to host such an event is to foster interest in STEM. What makes this event unique is it’s inside a busy mall. Bridgewater Commons is an ideal location to draw plenty of interest. During RVSTS, there will be a robotics competition, For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) Lego League Challenge (FLL) practice session, college and career fair, community STEM fair, and educational activities throughout the mall. Approximately 30 to 40 companies and nonprofit organizations with STEM aspects such as EMS and a volunteer fire department will have information tables on site. Spectators can catch the competition at the mall’s “Center Court”.
NEW JERSEY ROBOTICS TEAMS BREAKING THE MOLD
These types of events usually happen at schools during weekends. Those who aren’t affiliated with a participating team often don’t know these events even take place. This is a chance to get the competition in the public eye without any barriers to entry. Anyone can be a spectator.
“This is an opportunity for people to see how they can launch themselves into something STEM related, career-wise, or—if they’re kids—activity-wise. This event is where people can broaden their horizons and learn about things they didn’t know existed.”TYLER KAZAR, R.O.B.B.E. MEMBER
R.O.B.B.E. is a member of FIRST and its league FRC (FIRST Robotics Competition). FIRST is a robotics community that prepares young people for their future through inclusive, team-based robotics programs that can be facilitated in after-school programs. FIRST is beginning to receive media exposure including a Disney+ documentary and on Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. It has a global support system of volunteers, educators, and sponsors that includes some of the top Fortune 500 companies. Being a part of the FIRST program includes benefits like access to exclusive scholarships, internships, and other opportunities that create connections and career opportunities.
R.O.B.B.E. member and event organizer, Gregg Talewsky expressed the group’s long-term plan for this competition. “The hope is to make this an annual event,” said Talewsky. He explained the program’s value is ‘to inspire kids to pursue careers in STEM’.
The program used to be national under the name US FIRST but has expanded globally since Talewsky’s involvement. In his first year, there were under 100 teams. Talewsky now estimates there are 5,000 teams around the world just in FRC alone. Kazar stated there are even more teams involved under other FIRST leagues such as FLL which has over 38,000 teams.
Joining this club gives students the ability to learn certain life skills that aren’t taught in schools. These lessons can be carried over to their personal lives and brought with them into their professional lives.
STEM ENGAGEMENT LEADS TO THRIVING CAREERS
“It’s the 21st century skills that really can’t be taught in the classroom. We have this big problem that we have to solve very quickly. We’re teaching kids not only how to do critical problem solving which they do learn at school but you’re going to work with a group of people that aren’t going to share the same ideas as you. So now we have to teach you how to resolve conflict with each other in an amicable way,” Kazar mentioned. “We have to teach you how to be a leader. On our team, we give our kids debit cards to the bank account. Six of our kids have debit cards. We give them the responsibility, ‘Hey if you need to buy something to do your job, you need to do that!’ No other club is giving kids that opportunity to take on that leadership role.”
Members, Talewsky – Team 56 Mentor and FIRST alumni, Kazar – R.O.B.B.E. Event Oversight and Sommerville High School’s Robotics Team Fleet Advisor and Andy Tonato – R.O.B.B.E. Marketing Committee Member and Team 56 alumni have been operating R.O.B.B.E. from a former shoe store on the first floor inside Bridgewater Commons since January 2022 after relocating from their previous space at the Ethicon-Somerville Campus due to the mall’s proximity to all three teams’ locations each member represents. Trademark Property Company, the mall’s operator, offered the teams affordable rental space because their work aligns with the company’s mission to enhance communities and enrich lives.
“The mall has been extremely receptive of all of us,” Kazar stated.
They are currently experiencing many of the challenges that come with organizing a new event. Presently, three teams are registered to participate, and four teams are producing the event. They need a total of 24 competing teams for the event to be a success. The registered competing FIRST Robotics Competition Teams are: 3314 from Clifton, NJ, 303 from Bridgewater, NJ and 1279 from Somerville, NJ.
The group has raised $10,000 but needs an additional $20,000 to completely cover the costs of everything including AV rental, chairs, and shirts. However, their biggest obstacles are finding students available to register during their summer vacation schedules and being new to planning the competition in a space that’s not designed for events in less than 3 months. R.O.B.B.E.’s hoping this competition becomes a success, so Trademark invites them to host a competition at their super regional mall, Galleria Dallas in Dallas, TX.
Kazar is hopeful more teams will sign up once the school year begins. He explained the challenge of getting these teams involved in the October event. “We wanted to get the communication out there before most schools ended for the year. There’s also a realistic possibility that all these schools saw it but were going through graduation and then they’ll revisit registration,” Kazar stated.
Encouraging students to explore STEM and offering them the resources and space needed to put these interests into action is an essential part of rebuilding the modern manufacturing workforce. Robotics are used in countless ways throughout the manufacturing and the logistics industry. From automated systems to collaborative robotics on the shop floor, the industry needs to support students that have an interest in the field. Manufacturing is an incredibly diverse industry, but it continues to face a workforce challenge.
Not enough people are exploring the industry as a viable career option. When the industry collaborates with groups such as FIRST and their local teams, businesses can invite these students to be part of their community.
Employers that participate and contribute to local events such as the Bridgewater Commons RVSTS event can give students the chance to experience the true face of manufacturing while supporting their education and encouraging them to hone their industry-relevant skills. Connecting with local teams can be a challenge for New Jersey manufacturers. The most effective way to collaborate with robotics teams is by connecting with industry conduits like Michael Remshifski, NJMEP’s MAR Outreach Coordinator: firstname.lastname@example.org. When industry and academia come together, true progress will be made in finding a bridge to the skills chasm that continues to hinder the domestic manufacturing industry.