Erin Flynn is the manager of admissions outreach and events and the New England Institute of Technology. Flynn has been employed at New England Tech for 25 years and also serves as the contact person for the R.I. FIRST Tech Challenge.
FIRST stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology” and is a nationwide is a robotics competition for high school students.
Flynn, who holds a Masters in technical education as well as a Bachelor’s in communications from Rhode Island College, talked to Providence Business News about the upcoming FIRST competition taking place at New England Tech.
PBN: Can you explain a little bit about what the FIRST robotics competition is?
FLYNN: FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology).
FIRST was founded in 1989 to inspire young people's interest and participation in science and technology. Based in Manchester, N.H., the charity designs accessible, innovative programs that motivate young people to pursue education and career opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math, while building self-confidence, knowledge and life skills.
There are three levels of FIRST Robotics for Rhode Island students to get involved. Rhode Island FIRST Lego League, ages 9- 14. The Championship is this weekend at Roger Williams University with 60 RI teams.
Once the students have "aged out" of Lego League, our hope is that students will continue on to the FIRST Tech Challenge. Currently, we have several students on multiple teams who have done this. The FIRST Tech Challenge is for students ages 14-18 years old. The teams are comprised of 10-12 high school age students and can be run through the high school, after school, or club team. High school students have the option to get involved with the third level FIRST Tech Challenge, of which there are five teams in Rhode Island.
New England Tech is serving its seventh year as the Rhode Island Affiliate Partner for the FIRST Tech Challenge and as a major sponsor. I serve as the point person for the college. I work with the high school educators and after school teams, the Rhode Island industry volunteers as well as the National FIRST Office. I ensure that all teams have the information they need, that Rhode Island industry volunteers are ready and well prepared, as well as coordinate all event details.
Rhode Island high school age students in the FIRST Tech Challenge compete head to head with robots they have designed. Each year the game or challenge changes. This year is the game RING IT UP. The link to the game can be found here
FIRST is a great way for Rhode Island students to explore STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) careers in a hands-on fun way. I like to think of this event as STEM in action!
Rhode Island teams of up to 10 students are responsible for designing, building, and programming their robots to compete in an alliance format against other teams. The robot kit is reusable from year-to-year and is programmed using a variety of languages. Teams, including coaches, mentors and volunteers, are required to develop strategy and build robots based on sound engineering principles. Awards are given for the competition as for well as for community outreach, design, and other real-world accomplishments.
PBN: How did New England Tech get involved with the competition?
FLYNN: NEIT got involved with FIRST seven years ago. U.S. Rep. James R. Langevin invited FIRST founder, Dean Kamen, to the Business Innovation Factory event to talk about FIRST. After Dean Kamen spoke about FIRST, then Governor Carcieri encouraged all the schools to get involved.
Through the Business Innovation Factory and other funding that NEIT was not involved with, the materials needed for high schools to get started in the FIRST Tech Challenge were purchased. The group needed someone to be the state FIRST Affiliate Partner and run the details of the program. My understanding is that Tech Collective suggested NEIT.
Part of my responsibility at New England Tech is to organize high school events. The college had hosted contests here in the past such as SkillsUSA and the Ocean State Automotive Contest. Our ability to organize the details of this type of tournament was what NEIT could offer. Once the initial funding for the project ran out, NEIT felt strongly that this event was important for RI high school students and took on the fiscal aspect.
PBN: The actual building of a robot seems like a tough task for high school students, how much adviser help is there?
FLYNN: The building of the robot is tough, but students can get through it. There is great on-line assistance for teachers, coaches, and mentors. I will also say that the coaches and mentors are in touch with each other and are great about offering support to one another. NEIT does host workshops for educators and students as needed.
One of the important lessons students learn from this experience is how to work on a team. Some students may be better designers, builders, or programmers. Within the team, the students are encouraged to take on various roles. Certainly the educators or parents involved do a great job with the teams.
Teams are encouraged to reach out and work with Rhode Island business partners, which are of great help! Individuals from Rhode Island businesses that specialize in Information Technology, Mechanical Engineering Technology, or Mechanical Design Technology can offer a team a different perspective. Rhode Island high school students meeting and discussing design ideas with Rhode Island industry professionals is a great connection to make.
As part of designing, building, and programming the robot, teams need to keep an Engineering Notebook documenting the process of building the robot. Teams will be judged on this notebook as well. Judges are looking to see what processes the teams utilized to reach their final design.
PBN: What is your favorite part of the FIRST program?
FLYNN: My favorite part of the FIRST program is when the Rhode Island high school teams are at the tournament, their nerves have worn off, and they are completely engrossed in the experience. The energy level, the crazy costumes and hats, the fun they have meeting each other all add to the event while they are making sure their robot is competition ready. The last match is like the Superbowl! It makes all the work worth it.
PBN: Why do you think programs like this one are important for high school students?
FLYNN: We know that high school students select careers based on what they know and what they have experienced. The FIRST Tech Challenge encourages the Rhode Island high school students to get involved with math, physics, programming, designing and building a robot in a fun, competitive manner. STEM in action!