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Robots help students bridge STEM Gap

Randall Phillips can’t contain his excitement about Amazon’s plans for a Memphis distribution facility, albeit for different reasons than most Bluff City residents.

“Amazon has confirmed they are bringing a $72 million plant to Memphis. Inside the plant are little orange robots with tall handles that lift and bring new shelves to workers as needed. That’s STEM!” said Phillips, a senior mentor with For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST).

“Amazon is going to need someone here in Memphis to design, build, program and maintain those robots,” Phillips said. “My goal is to prepare students for these STEM-related careers.”

FIRST is a nonprofit organization that desires to bridge the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) attraction gap by inspiring young people’s interest and participation in science and technology. As FIRST’s senior mentor, Phillips is responsible for recruiting, expanding and supporting the organization.

FIRST offers a progression of four after-school programs for students ages 6-18: FIRST LEGO League Jr., FIRST LEGO League, FIRST Tech Challenge and FIRST Robotics Competition.

Phillips has been a FIRST volunteer for more than 10 years and he serves as a mentor for the community team at Benjamin L. Hooks Library. He also coaches team #17013, The STEMulators, a FIRST LEGO League (FLL) team.

A FIRST LEGO League meeting may look similar to elementary-age students rushing through snack time to hover around a life-size game board to operate a robot they’ve programmed to accomplish a goal. That goal may be getting the LEGO-made robot to drop water into a fountain or milking a cow without releasing the manure.

“Sometimes you just need to find the right angle,” STEMulator Aiden Lockhart said. “Day after day after day, we tried to turn a knob and we actually made a mistake that ended up helping us figure it out.

“Making mistakes is the best part because it helps us learn more.”

Lockhart is a fourth-grader at Germantown Elementary and believes that participating in FLL will help him accomplish his goal of becoming an inventor.

FLL’s season begins each year on May 1 and each team is allotted a two-week build period. Themes and real-world problems are assigned for the robots to solve. Last year’s theme was hydrodynamics. This year’s theme is Into Orbit. Kickoff begins Aug. 1.

Once a team participates in qualifiers and is selected for the regional championship, the next step is competition at the University of Memphis’ Herff College. Teams compete for points in three rounds, each lasting two-and-a-half minutes. They are judged on core values, how the team’s project reflects the theme and on robot design and programming.

At the heart of FIRST are its core values and coined phrases: gracious professionalism (meaning respect for others), being a good sport and sharing what you learn. There is also the coined word “coopertition,” which means competing hard but also helping other teams.

Phillips has been a FIRST coach since 2015. As a FIRST senior mentor, he is the first African-American to hold that position in the west Tennessee region. He is determined to raise awareness in the African-American community about STEM career possibilities.

“When I began coaching, my team consisted of my daughter, my wife as a co-coach and one other participant, who was unable to compete with us. The next year I knew I had to seriously put together a team, but the hardest part was finding children that were interested,” Phillips said.

“Now that I am a FIRST senior mentor, I have begun to promote the program at schools and churches. FIRST has so much to offer that a lot of parents and students don’t know about.”

FIRST refers to participants as technicians. Throughout the process they learn how to apply real-word math and science concepts, develop teamwork skills and build life skills, including critical thinking, time management, collaboration and communication skills. They also have opportunities to work alongside engineers.

Anybody can be a FIRST coach, Phillips said.

“You don’t have to be an engineer or have a STEM-related career. … FIRST gives you a starter kit and guidebook on how to become a successful team.

“We also need more volunteers and we need more mentors with the skill set and the desire to help the children,” he said.

“Funding has also been a struggle. This program is not free, and we need sponsors that will support and invest in our children and our vision.”

(For more information please visit the local site www.MemphisFirstTeams.org or the national site www.FirstInspires.org.)

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