Westford Robotics team boosts STEAM locally and internationally
“Younger kids are the future of our society,” says 17-year-old Mohak Jain, of Westford. “It’s that simple; their minds are open to bright possibilities, and yet, when they grow older so many of them fall off the path of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics).”
Instead of seeing them drop away, Mohak, a junior, and fellow high school team members of the Westford, MA based FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) Team Stormgears 5422 are working to inspire kids to consider STEAM careers using the fun of robotics to hook them.
The team members, who started out as members of a Stormgears FIRST LEGO League (FLL) team, launched by the Middlesex County Robotics Club, were inspired by an FRC team they had met at a competition. Today, as an FRC team, they build the larger robots at a donated warehouse manufacturing space in Devens, MA.
“I have seen tremendous growth in the team members,” says Liza D’Aquino, an electrical engineer and long-time team mentor. “They have been exposed to real world engineering and problem solving skills that will serve them well, not only in school, but also in their future careers.”
“For me, being on the Stormgears FRC team is an extremely powerful experience,” adds Mohak. “I can learn how to design a functioning robot essentially from scratch. I can learn real-world applications of the concepts I’ve learned in school alongside adult mentors who have experience in the field. I can be part of a competitive and intense environment not unlike that of a team sport.”
The team was recently awarded two Safety Awards at district competitions, and won Engineering Inspiration Awards at both a district competition and at the 2017 FIRST New England District Championship held at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, which qualified the team to go to the FIRST World Championship competition held in St. Louis, MO on April 26-29. The group received the Engineering Inspiration Award for its innovative way of mentoring both locally and abroad through its ‘Global Outreach,’ ‘STEAM Splash,’ and ‘Jr. FLL-in-a-box,’ programs, which have created educational and mentoring initiatives globally.
Inspiring in India and Beyond
“Global Outreach is a unique and innovative endeavor for spreading the message of FIRST worldwide in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics,” says 16-year-old team member Alekh Beri, who spearheaded the team’s global outreach effort. “We support and promote STEAM for kids in various countries by conducting robotics workshops, mentoring and providing supplies for activities.”
The origins of the team’s global outreach efforts date back to the summer of 2015, when Alekh, his mother and sister made a trip to India. They had made advanced phone calls to identify schools in impoverished areas that would not normally have access to robotics.
“I went to four schools in low income areas and taught robotics basics using recycled NXT sets,” says Alekh, who was just 14-years-old at the time. He had worked with his twin sister, Serena, who is also on the FRC team, to create seven boxes of supplies that were used to train 50 students and 10 science and math teachers. The boxes, which also included games to build core team values, have evolved into the team’s existing ‘Jr. FLL-in-a-box’ kit.
During the workshops in India, students learned about building robots, snap circuits and how robot attachments work. “We reviewed examples in real life of how these are used like grippers in high temperature plants, forklifts for moving heavy things and collecting attachments for earthmoving,” notes Alekh. “Students were excited about all the activities and they were very interactive. We talked about distance traveled, gears, friction, recycling, and a lot of other science concepts.”
Teachers and adult mentors in the classrooms helped Alekh and Serena communicate with the students, who expressed gratitude. “We learned new things today,” noted one student through an interpreter. “We had heard and read about robotics but we actually got to see it today and saw how to make and use it,” another student added. “This workshop made science so much fun,” said a teacher.
“The workshops were very successful,” notes Alekh’s mother Asmita Khanolkar, the mechanical team mentor, who also serves as the global outreach mentor to facilitate FLL support. With a Masters degree in Materials Science and Engineering from WPI and over 20 years experience in medical device scale up, Khanolkar frequently speaks at conventions and on the topics of women in engineering and girls in STEM. She viewed the trip to India as very constructive. “It was a great opportunity to learn about the struggles and lack of funds for these very bright students who could do programming and were technically savvy.”
The team has been in contact with the India Stem Foundation and has asked to sponsor an FLL team, which will receive the “Stormgears Global Outreach Award” of $400, which, in Indian currency, is enough for a team to register and compete in an FLL season. There are also plans to assist high school teams in Spain and Dracut, MA while offering mentoring support to various FLL teams locally and globally.
STEAM Splash Makes Waves
The funding for the Global Outreach award was made possible by ‘STEAM Splash,’ a non-profit organization developed by the Stormgears, which is made up of more than 50 high school students and over a dozen adult volunteer mentors from around Middlesex County in Massachusetts. STEAM Splash member employ ‘Jr. FLL-in-a-box’ and other approaches to mentor locally and abroad.
“STEAM Splash takes the FIRST curriculum and simplifies it down to eight turn-key in-a-box one hour sessions,” notes Mohak. “We take a challenge from Jr. FLL, and make it much simpler for people who don’t have all the resources to create a full-fledged FIRST organization. We combine these boxes with a web platform that connects younger students to older student mentors like us, and that means that we have a modular way of packaging our passion and sending it to kids all across the country, or even the world!”
“It is so inspiring to see the drive and efforts from these high school students when they conduct outreach activities like these,” says Khanolkar. “As a team, they come together and whether they are seasoned or rookie members, they all work together on robot demonstrations while inspiring the younger kids to get involved. The happiness and achievements on the kids’ faces that attend these outreach activities makes it all worth it.”
Parent Prerna Jain credits the team’s engineering, marketing and fundraising sub-teams for teaching a broad range of skills and emphasizing the importance of inspiring new generations. “FRC has inspired my son to be a well-rounded leader in science and technology,” she notes.
For the team, it’s about paying it forward. “If a passion for STEAM is instilled in these kids when they are young, they are more likely to make STEAM a part of their life, just as all of us here at Stormgears have done,” says Mohak. “If they are mentored by people excited about STEAM, then they will be more likely to develop that same blossoming passion in themselves. It’s also a way for us Stormgears to give back to the community that mentored us, that encouraged us, that brought us to where we are, by encouraging the next generation to follow in our footsteps.”
Enrollment Open for Summer Camps in Westford:
2018 Westford Summer Camps are being held at the Nashoba Valley Technical High School. Camps tend to fill, so book a spot at our Tech & Design Camp and/or Minecraft Camp before it’s too late! In addition to school vacation camps, make sure to check out our Nanocamp and Weekend Club options.