The ongoing silver tsunami of retiring Baby Boomers has industrial organizations of all shapes and sizes increasingly concerned over the pipeline of future workers—especially in fields related to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Will there be enough of them to meet future needs? Will they have the necessary knowledge, skills and abilities to contribute and be leaders in technology and innovation? Will they reflect and represent the community and customer base they serve?
These are some of the key concerns that Chris Moore, CEO of FIRST, reiterated to the closing keynote session audience at this week’s Honeywell Users Group in Orlando, Fla. Founded by inventor Dean Kamen more than 30 years ago, FIRST is recognized today as the leading, not-for-profit STEM engagement program for kids worldwide. And while the organization is perhaps best known for its robotics competitions for high schoolers, FIRST is not about kids building robots, Moore said. “Rather, it’s about robots building kids.”
“We have to change how we teach science,” Moore contended. “We are what we value, and in our culture that is sports and entertainment, not science and technology.” So, a FIRST robotics competition is designed to combine aspects of a Rolling Stones concert, the World Cup and a WWE wrestling match, he explained. In fact, those robotics competitions are the culmination of a years-long participatory journey designed to engage with and develop the STEM capabilities, people skills and self-confidence of kids ranging from the age of 4 to18.
“Our goal is to ensure a broad range of opportunities for participants across learning environments,” Moore said. FIRST’s secret sauce includes a number of important ingredients:
• Game play: Fun, thematic robot game challenges to enhance engineering and teamwork skills
• Innovation: Real-world innovation opportunities designed to test problem-solving skills and make a community impact
• Careers: Career exploration, mentorship and scholarship opportunities for fostering personal and professional development
• Community: Young people, and the adults who mentor them, are part of our thriving, inclusive global robotics community
• Recognition: Opportunities to celebrate and be recognized for achievements
Interest, rather than academic proficiency, is a greater predictor of children pursuing studies and careers in STEM fields, Moore said. “Our evidence-based programs use strategies known to increase student interest and engagement in STEM.”
It’s difficult to argue with the organization’s approach—especially when they’ve taken the time to do a 96-month longitudinal study that confirms FIRST participants are roughly twice as likely to show an increase in STEM-related attitudes than comparison group students. Girls and young women are even more likely to pursue STEM-related pathways than their peers. And the number of kids and young people impacted continues to grow year over year with more than 635,000 students impacted in the 2022-2023 season (up 19% from the previous year) from 106 countries around the world (up from 98 in the previous year).
To bring Moore’s assertion to life, two teams of FIRST robotics competitors took the stage to discuss what FIRST has meant to them personally, and to give attendees a taste of the technical problem solving, business planning and capital raising involved in developing a competitive robot—and securing the $50,000 it typically takes each team to fund its participation. Both teams, in fact, had been mentored by Honeywell employees.
In his closing remarks, Moore urged HUG attendees to get their own companies involved in supporting the work of FIRST. By encouraging and enabling employees to volunteer, for example, industrial organizations can increase the quality and diversity of their STEM workforce, maintain a STEM-focused pipeline, and ultimately invest and give back to communities worldwide, he said. Companies can also donate materials and supplies that highlight and leverage their brand, technology, products and mission.
In addition to volunteers and materials, financial support is of course the third leg of the stool that makes FIRST so effective. And to underscore Honeywell’s own support of FIRST’s mission, Lucian Boldea, president and CEO of Honeywell Performance Materials and Technologies climbed to the stage to present Moore with an oversized check for $100,000. “At Honeywell, we often refer to our innovators as futureshapers,” Boldea said. “And it’s inspiring to see what FIRST is doing to shape our future futureshapers.”