Engineering Interest

Robotics competition increases involvement in a field that needs it

Stacy Nelson is dressed like a stock-car pit-crew member at the international high school robotics competition at the Thomas & Mack Center. But she’s greasing the gears in a different kind of way. Nelson is the lead robot inspector, making certain that teams adhered to 140 specifications in crafting their six-wheel, flatbed robots designed to “kick” a soccer ball into a goal. Nelson, who once thought she’d major in political science, entered this very robotics competition as a high school student in 2002. Now, she’ll earn her Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from UNLV in about a year.

The two-day FIRST Robotics competition involved 48 teams.

The university is a partner in the competition, formally known as FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics, a program designed to encourage high school students to pursue careers in science and engineering. Engineers such as Nelson who pursue advanced degrees are still rare, says Robert Abella, associate dean of undergraduate programs at UNLV. Although undergraduate engineering enrollment is up about 6 percent at UNLV since last year, fewer people are interested in math and science nationwide. Recent grads are finding jobs easily and aren’t going on to earn advanced degrees, which means less research and innovation, Abella says.

The problem starts earlier than college. Last fall, President Obama launched a campaign called Educate to Innovate, aimed at increasing student participation and performance in math and science. The program was spurred by the fact that American students are rated 21st in the world in science and 25th in math, Obama said.

Abella is doing his part. He goes around and speaks to physics classes, showing them hands-on applications of engineering, from catalytic convertors to computer microchips. Getting kids excited about engineering is always a good thing, he says. “Our solution has been to involve them in research early on as an undergrad and to really encourage students. And we pay them for their research.”

There were numerous displays of enthusiasm at the competition, with teams sporting everything from brightly colored team T-shirts to matching Mohawk hairdos. The two-day competition involved 48 teams, including 10 from Clark County and another from Germany. Forty percent of competition alumni pursue engineering in college and more than 20 FIRST alumni are students at UNLV, which has hosted the competition for six years.

One local high school—Cimarron-Memorial—didn’t need much encouragement. It won the regional FIRST competition the past two years and was crowned world champion in 2007. And these students are truly put to the task. “The advisers are really mentors, teaching us motivation and to be innovative. It’s not like they grab a part, do the work and we just watch,” says team electrician Bryan Webb, 17. The school has a robotics class and after-school program, which Webb calls “a good feeder system.” The students received a kit of 36-inch aluminum pieces and electronic components and had just six weeks to create their robot, replete with handmade remote controls that manipulate a “kicker” and turn the wheels to navigate and score.

One thing Cimarron had that other schools didn’t: females comprising half its team. Team adviser Jenny Stensrud says the school has more girls than ever involved this year. She says some of the female students were a bit timid at first, so she’s really tried to take a hands-on approach as an adviser. She even set up time for new members to work on a practice robot before diving in. “You’d expect the team to be more guy-run, but we’re just not,” says Nikki Beaman, 18, who wants to become a civil engineer.

Just exposing women to engineering is essential, says Nelson, the robot inspector. She had never considered it until a mentor encouraged her. “And now engineering has become my career,” she says. “It’s fun to check robots for a job.”

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