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My career inspiration: robotics

Angela Belden | 23 Feb 2016 | Comments

“Only fifteen seconds left in this match … Three. Two. One. And time!” The crowd anxiously waits as the final scores are calculated.

This was, and still is, my kind of sport. I joined my high school’s robotics club, the James Madison High School "Warbots," when I was just a freshman—not thinking too much of it at the time. What I didn’t know was how much it would inspire me to want to continue down the path to becoming an engineer. My parents did not have technical professions or have any connections to the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, which meant the only place I could learn about this was at school.

Angela Phung
Angela working on the team's "Lunacy" robot.

We only had six weeks—working with adult mentors—to design, build, program, and test our robot to compete in the FIRST® Robotics Competition (FRC), which brands itself as the ultimate sport for the mind. The theme of that particular year’s game was “Lunacy,” in honor of the 40th anniversary of the first manned mission to the Moon. The goal was to score as many points as possible by using the robot to move game pieces to the trailer pulled behind the opposing team’s robot. The first segment required the robots to be operated according to computer programs loaded in advance, while the second segment required them to be driven by remote control. The competition progressed from regional, to district, to national championships—increasingly putting to the test the effectiveness of each robot, the strength of the team’s collaboration, and the determination of the students.

Lunacy Robot
The team's robot competing at the FRC.

The aim of FRC is to “inspire young people’s interest and participation in science and technology, and to motivate them to pursue education and career opportunities in STEM fields.” For me, it did just that.

The club taught me so much. Not only did it teach me how to put together a working robot, but also about teamwork, leadership, how to incorporate the science and math I learned in class into a well-built robot (i.e., problem solving), how to budget money and time, how to gain corporate sponsors, and so much more. Of course, this is all speaking in hindsight. At the time, being a member of the club just meant hard work and lots of fun—we didn’t know we were secretly learning so many critical skills.

When the time came for me to decide on my college major, I thought back to my experiences in the robotics club. If I could make a living out of solving problems and coming up with new ways to accomplish things, I knew I would have a fun career. Then it hit me—engineers do that on a daily basis—and my decision was quickly made.

2009 James Madison Warbots Team

The 2009 James Madison High School "Warbots" Robotics Club. Angela pictured in front row, far left.

Fast forward to the present, I am now mentoring teens at my old robotics club. I can see the potential for these students to learn as much, or even more, than I did and how they will be able to apply their interest and knowledge gathered from the club to their future lives.

In addition to donating to my high school's robotics club, Atkins supports the Grady High School Robotics Club in Atlanta, Georgia, as well as several others. The Grady team recently received top honors in various competitions, including second place for the 2014 Drone Prize, where they competed with teams made up entirely of college students and adults, and first place in the 2015 Georgia Southern Classic FRC.

It's amazing how much a small thing—like joining a robotics club—has made such an impact on my life and career. I’m grateful that this opportunity existed for me and I hope that this becomes an option for more students in the future. I’m also grateful that I get to work for an organization who gives back to the community and supports initiatives like these—making it possible for a new generation to get excited about engineering and technology. For me, mentoring students is a lot of fun. It reminds me of why I chose this career to begin with. Perhaps in another five years, while looking back, I’ll realize that I was secretly learning even more critical skills by mentoring than when I was competing.

The short video below highlights the Grady team’s passion for drones and showcases why we’re involved in clubs like these:

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