Peter Balyta: Want to make a difference in STEM? Become a robotics mentor

In Peter Balyta’s unique role as president of Education Technology and vice president of Academic Engagement and Corporate Citizenship, he interacts with students and educators at all levels. In this second in a series of “Inspire STEM” articles, Peter talks about one easy way to bring STEM to life for any student.

Peter Balyta with FRC Team 5417, Eagle Robotics, Allen High SchoolIn my last post, I painted an alarming picture of the high-stakes problem of insufficient science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education in the United States. I asked you to join me in my quest to make STEM more accessible to all students.

The response to my rally cry – from teachers, industry partners, TIers and students – has been delightfully overwhelming. I am encouraged by all the emails and calls I have received from people asking what they can do to help.

My answer is simple: Get involved in a robotics program. Robotics mentorship and volunteerism isn’t just for engineers. No matter your background or education, there is a role for you. I speak from experience: As a dad who has volunteered with my son’s middle- and high-school robotics teams, I’ve done everything from ordering pizza to providing feedback on ideas, and the experience has been very rewarding.

The “why” is in the numbers

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a robotics partner with whom we work closely, released a report in April 2017 on the impact of its robotics programs. The FIRST study, which just completed its third year of data collection, reveals that young people who participate in robotics programs make significantly greater gains in STEM measures than students who do not. These measures include interest in STEM subjects, involvement in STEM-related activities, STEM identity, STEM knowledge, and intent to pursue a STEM career[i]. Here’s what the FIRST data says about students who are involved in robotics programs:

  • 2.9 times more likely than comparison students to show gains in STEM interest
  • 3.7 times more likely to show gains in involvement in STEM activity
  • 2.3 times more likely to show gains on interest in STEM careers
  • 2.4 times more likely to show gains in STEM identity
  • 2.7 times more likely to show gains in understanding of STEM

This is music to my ears. Two additional robotics programs with whom we work – VEX and BEST – also provide helpful resources explaining why robotics competitions are an impactful way to get kids interested in STEM subjects.

“Our 150-pound robot was only possible because we worked together

Admittedly, I am a numbers guy. But numbers illustrate only a partial picture of the power of robotics programs.

I recently had the pleasure of hearing students, teachers and mentors from five North Texas robotics teams tell personal stories about how robotics competitions are helping shape their lives. One student really drove home the value of diversity when he shared this message:

“We love that our team comes from so many different backgrounds because that means we have more diverse minds to expand what our future robots will look like. We also learned that even though we’re individuals, we are a family on the field and our 150-pound robot was only possible because we worked together.”
Benny Reyna, FRC team 1745, J.J. Pearce High School
Richardson, Texas

Steve Clynes, Member Group Technical Staff, PSIL-PI Test and Validation, and volunteer robotics mentor for FRC 5242, RoboCats, Woodrow Wilson High SchoolThe concept of family rang true across all the teams. One robotics group talked about their annual “Friendsgiving” dinner, which they host near the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday each year to encourage inclusion and emphasize family. Another team created an outreach program for hearing-impaired students to encourage them to participate in robotics. Yet another team is planning to design and print a 3D playing field, which will make it possible for a sight-impaired student to prepare for competitions. The goal is to remove barriers to the student’s full participation.

All of these stories reflect why I am an ardent believer in robotics competitions. They level the STEM education playing field so that any student can become a STEM student, regardless of background, family environment, aptitude, physical ability or socioeconomic status. Name a reason or potential roadblock: None of them matter in the robotics competition pits. Robotics competitions open a pathway to STEM learning, and they teach the very values and skills urgently needed to take the U.S. forward: leadership, teamwork, problem-solving, diversity of thought, volunteerism, ethics, confidence, commitment, compassion and communication.

Get involved

“When you have enough mentors so the kids can learn, they become mentors themselves.”

– Steve Clynes, TIer and volunteer robotics mentor at Woodrow Wilson High School in the Dallas Independent School District

When you get involved in robotics mentorship and volunteerism, you have an opportunity to transform the life of a student. And just think of the lives that student will touch in the future. Your investment, even if it’s only once a week, has the potential to pay powerful dividends. I speak from my own experience.

Benny Reyna, with FRC team 1745, P-51 Mustangs, J.J. Pearce High SchoolWhen my son was in middle school, I became a mentor for his VEX robotics team. Full disclosure: I was hesitant to commit due to my work and travel schedule, but I decided that I could find time during weeks when I was not traveling, even if it meant foregoing other things. I began to join the team once a week, and my role was to be a thought partner with whom they could bounce around ideas. Soon I was as motivated as they were. I discovered that their creativity, excitement and self-confidence were contagious.

What started as a once-a-week commitment with my son’s team has become a long-term journey. I’ve spent time cheering on teams at various robotics competitions sponsored by TI, and I’ve participated as a judge during various FIRST competitions in the Dallas area. I’m also involved with my son’s Allen High School Eagle FRC 5417 robotics team.

I’m on a quest to narrow the gaps in STEM education in the U.S., and student robotics competitions are a proven way to do that. Here’s how you can get involved, too:

  1. First, remove any pre-conceived notion you might have that robotics programs don’t match your volunteer skillset. These programs need adults who have backgrounds in marketing, engineering, finance, fundraising, cooking, driving and cheerleading.
  2. Call your local middle or high school and find out if they have a robotics program. If the answer is “no,” then either email me personally (balyta@ti.com), or send a note to robotics@list.ti.com to find out how to get involved somewhere else – or better yet, fill a need by setting up a new program where one doesn’t exist.
  3. If you’re a TIer, learn how to become a robotics mentor or volunteer.

Check out STEM education programs and resources from our company.

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Passionate about STEM? Have your own story to tell? Share your thoughts in the comments.

[i] FIRST Longitudinal Study: Findings at 36 Month Follow-Up (Year 4 Report)