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STEM event showcases brilliant young minds, robotics, and potential of our future Army

By Michaellyn Perkins Albany Recruiting Battalion

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Some of the brightest high school minds in the New England area came together April 10-13, at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Ma, for the 2019 New England Robotics Championships. The event, which challenges students in a myriad of ways to include working together to accomplish something important, is why the organization, For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology or FIRST, was created. It’s also why the Army was a proud sponsor of the event.

For 30 years, FIRST has been advancing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) to young minds around the globe, challenging them to work toward finding solutions to issues that not only affect us today, but may well impact us all in the future. That ethos is exactly what the Army instills in many of its Soldiers in order to lead the charge in technological advances and remain lethal on the modern battlefield.

“It’s not just about building robots, though,” said Bruce Linton, Director of New England FIRST. “It’s about our up-and-coming generation recognizing that finding resolutions to issues requires teamwork, perseverance, and implementing new ideas to bring about change.”

Adapting to change is what the Army does to maintain the technological upper hand against our adversaries, but it requires people who are scientifically and technologically proficient. That’s precisely why the U.S. Army Recruiting Command’s Albany Recruiting Battalion, participated in this year’s competition and enlisted some help to showcase the necessity for young people with both brawn and brains, to join the ranks.

George Matook is the Deputy Director, Soldier Performance Optimization Directorate for the U.S. Army Combat Capability Development Command Soldier Center, or CCDC SC. He’s a graduate of WPI and hugely supportive of STEM events.

“The engineers of tomorrow start here,” said Matook adding, he thinks it’s important to give high school students the opportunity to get exposed to the Army now, “even if it’s only in little ways,” he said.

CCDC is a subordinate command of Army Futures Command, and is responsible for the development of some of the Army’s most groundbreaking innovations in Soldier equipment and battlefield technology. Mattok and his team brought prototypes of some of the latest inventions to come out of CCDC to include a palm-sized Unmanned Aerial System and a prototype vehicle seat charger that keeps Soldier-borne electronics topped off.

“If students can see themselves in the future in terms of what they could do for Soldiers-if they’re into programming or mission planning, it gives them a sense of where they could go,” Matook said, “not necessarily building robots, but this venue gives them an idea of what they could do for their country once they’re old enough and trained up,” he said.

Michael Samuel works with Matook as team leader for the Advanced Soldier and Small Unit Equipment Team, another group within the CCDC family. He said he believes there’s one thing every student should have in his book bag.

“High school kids need a pipeline-a talent pipeline through high school, through college and then, hopefully, they’ll come to work for the Army, whether it’s serving on active duty, working with Natick Labs or working with us,” he said.

Samuel went on to say that having that pipeline is crucial-especially as our workforce ages.

“Just as the Army needs the ability to attract young Soldiers, so too, do we need to be able to attract young scientists and engineers so we’re ready to produce the next great thing for our troops,” he said.

The theme of this year’s competition was Destination: Deep Space. WPI’s basketball court inside Harrington Auditorium, served as the staging area for the fictitious planet Primus, where competing Red and Blue alliances were tasked with outfitting rockets with hatch panels--flat, plexi-glass rings nearly two feet in diameter that were collected by robots at each starting point, remotely driven to the side of a model cargo ship, and then stuck to a cargo hatch opening.

“Cargo” consisted of orange rubber balls retrieved from the floor and loaded into alliance rockets and cargo ships. Students were given a two-minute thirty-second window in which to load their cargo and return to their home docking port before the next sandstorm arrived on planet Primus. Teams consisted of drivers who remotely controlled their robot, as well as hatch panel and cargo feeders.

Each robot stood about four feet high with none exceeding the 125-pound regulation weight limit. With a total of six robots in the arena at one time-three per alliance-the pressure was on for team drivers situated behind a clear panel, to navigate unpredictable terrain and guide their team to victory.

Dan Rosewell is a coach and mentor for the Rutland, Vt., IBOTS. He’s worked with the Rutland High School team for several years and echoed the sentiments of other team mentors and leaders at the event.

“Yes, we’re building robots, but what we’re really doing is building kids,” he said. “We’re building their confidence, getting them to do things they’ve never done before, and making them feel comfortable learning all sorts of new skills,” said Rosewell. “We’re actually building the next generation of employable students.”

Rosewell knows for certain just how the FIRST events can positively impact a young person’s life.

“Spencer Prouty was a student at Rutland High School and was the driver for our team last year,” he said. “After he graduated, he went on to serve in the Army and went into the field of Cyber Security,” said Rosewell adding, “and I just found out he’s trying out to become an Army Ranger.”

He also said he’s really proud of Prouty and thinks more young people should serve not just for a solid career, but because of the price of education these days.

According to the Federal Reserve, there is currently a staggering $1.56 trillion in total U.S. student loan debt, and nearly 12% of student loans are either 90 days delinquent or in default. Army recruiters like Sgt. 1st Class Lucas Newell, station commander for the Worcester, Mass., Recruiting Station, knows all too well exactly how expensive it is for young people today to get a four-year college degree. He says when he talks to potential recruits about joining the ranks, he emphasizes the financial burden of student loans and makes it clear that the Army recognizes the importance of well-educated Soldiers and will cover the cost of tuition.

“I tell everyone straight up, that if they choose to serve on active duty for three years, 100% of any in-state university tuition fees are paid for,” said Newell. “And then I follow that up with the fact that the Army will pay you a basic allowance for housing that could total as much as $1,900 monthly, depending on where you live and if you’re a fulltime student carrying 12 credit hours a semester,” he said.

Chief Warrant Officer 5, Patrick Nelligan, is the 6th Command Chief Warrant Officer of the Army Reserve Medical Command. Not only was he a featured guest speaker on opening day of the district championships, but Nelligan also played an instrumental role in bringing CCDC to the event in support of USAREC’s Albany Recruiting Battalion. He wanted to help because he knows how critical it is for young minds to be exposed to science and technology.

“The Army provides the perfect venue to these students coming out of high school with some exposure to STEM because most of the technology the Army is moving into-these kids are building the second and third generations of,” said Nelligan adding, “events like this highlight how much the Army needs to catch-up to what these kids are doing because some of the things they’ve designed will be some of the new platforms we’re going to be using in the future.”

Nelligan also stressed the necessity for USAREC to sponsor future STEM events as a means of building-up the number and quality of applicants seeking to join the ranks.

“These types of events are very important-very critical because they allow us to identify those up-and-coming smart kids with the capability and innovation we need,” he said. “This event is exactly why the Army needs to embrace STEM as one of our recruiting models.”

Massachusetts Lt. Governor, Karyn Polito, and Governor Charlie Baker, both stopped by the event to talk to students. Polito opened the final day of competition and psyched-up the crowd by praising all of them for their hard work.

“All of you are exceptional individuals, and we are counting on you for our future,” said Polito. “Go have a great time today, and for those of you who go on to Detroit, that’s fantastic because you are all winners.”

Baker took the time to talk to students one-on-one in the gymnasium bleachers. He also made time to stop by Albany Battalion’s table set-up, chat with the Worcester Recruiting Station recruiters, and say a few words about the event.

“FIRST robotics is a great opportunity to bring together all kinds of kids who have a particular interest in STEM and most importantly to give them a chance to learn how to work together as a team and compete at a very high level with their fellow classmates,” said Baker. “I just love the whole notion of this, and I can’t think of a better way for the Army, and especially for the future of the Army, to craft and help build the young minds that they’re going to need to be successful with respect to national security and national defense, than to support entities like this.”

The IBOTS of Rutland outlasted many of their 64 competitors by proudly ranking 11th overall in the district competition. Team 2168 out of Groton, Ct., was the winner of the 2019 New England District Championship and moved to the next leg of competition in Detroit, Mi.