Vecna Robotics recently partnered with Citizen Schools to offer a course on automation and robotics to local middle schoolers. Citizen Schools works with volunteer Citizen Teachers from the community to help train young students with the skills they need to thrive as adults in the modern economy.
Nick Mitri, a technical project manager at Vecna Robotics, went to Chelmsford Public Schools to help students work on pull devices they transformed into mobile robots. We asked him a few questions about his experience volunteering.
Q: Why did you decide to volunteer with Citizen Schools?
NM: The opportunities Citizen School offers allow professionals to connect with the younger generation in our Massachusetts communities in an effort to try and boost enthusiasm about STEM and robotics. Middle school is a very important time for most students who are starting to define their interests and hobbies, so the more we can get the students involved with and excited about robotics, the more we can expect the field to grow in the future.
Q: What was your first impression of the classroom?
NM: I was pleasantly surprised. Mr. McFarland has done an excellent job making the room feel like a R&D space with shelfs full of all different components (gears, bearings, wheels, motors, controllers, etc.) that the students can pick from to design and build their robot. The students were excited to show me their projects and explain their design. At this stage, the robots were able to move if you pushed them by hand. We jumped right into their next step in the project, which was adding sensors, motors, motor controllers and code to control it all.
Q: What surprised you most during your experience?
NM: Walking into the classroom, I wasn’t sure what response I would receive from the students. Would they be open to allow me to share my passion about robotics or would they shut me out and decide that robotics wasn’t interesting enough to keep their attention? Pleasantly enough, the students were very open to talking to me and learning about not only robots, but different engineering techniques and designs they see every day.
When it was time to decide how to mount their drive motors, I spoke with the students about the different drivetrain techniques and the pros and cons of mounting a motor to drive their front axle compared to their rear axle. One student was able to relate what I was discussing to front and rear wheel drive cars and you could see that the student was excited to connect the dots to a real-life scenario.
Q: Why do you wish other people knew about this cause and how important do you think this initiative is?
NM: I wish other people knew about the cause to help educate students about the STEM and robotics fields as early as possible. The Greater Boston Area has potential to be one of the top technology areas in the world and I think it is our job as professionals to encourage and embrace our younger generation of future engineers and scientists.
This initiative is so important because it allows us to show students the different career options in STEM and robotics. During our hiring process, we are increasingly looking at a candidate’s passion projects and experiences more so than formal education. If we can inspire students at an early age to pick up STEM and robotics as a hobby, I believe we will see much stronger candidates in the future.
Q: What have you learned from your experience with Chelmsford Public Schools?
NM: I learned how influential students at that age can be to peer pressure and what they decide is “cool” is typically a group decision. Mr. McFarland has used that as a motivation tactic to allow students to move at their own pace hoping that there would be one or two groups that move quickly and drive the other students to desire to keep up. I think this is an interesting technique and seems quite effective with students at that age.
Q: What would you tell a person who is thinking about volunteering?
NM: If you have never done something like this before, I would recommend it. I think it’s important to give back to our communities in the most effective way possible and for engineers and scientists, I believe the most effective way to give back is through education. I feel as though I have an obligation to help the next generation start their careers with more knowledge and experience in the tech space than we started with. If we develop the culture in this area that way, I believe we’ll have young great minds innovating the market and allowing Boston to thrive as the international tech hub it can be.