Living and Learning, Even in the Hardest of Conditions

Jan 17, 2018 By Alma Bertoni, Coach, FIRST LEGO League Team “CSI Cybernetic Lions”

Alma Bertoni, a FIRST LEGO League coach and teacher from San Juan, Puerto Rico, shares how her students have persevered since Hurricane Maria devastated their island, as well as their journey exploring solutions to help their community through HYDRO DYNAMICS, the 2017/2018 FIRST LEGO League Challenge.


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FIRST inspires Cleveland’s championship team

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Youth Technology Academy

FIRST Robotics Competition Team 120 “Cleveland’s Team,” Cleveland, Ohio

A couple of months before the Cleveland Cavaliers won the city's first professional sports title in 52 years, FIRST Robotics Competition Team 120 "Cleveland's Team" brought a world championship to the Ohio city as part of the Winning Alliance of the 2016 FIRST Championship.

The team unites 18 high schools in Cleveland, Ohio's public-school system, giving students a safe place after school to be themselves, learn, grow, and even earn college credits through Cuyahoga Community College. "There are students who heretofore would probably never, ever consider pursuing not only STEM-related activities, but pursuing higher education," says William Gary, executive vice president of Cuyahoga Community College. "This is an avenue for ... encouraging them to pursue positions and opportunities that will help elevate them out of their current economic situations."


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University’s FIRST Center becomes community STEM hub

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Bob Nichols

Director, FIRST Robotics Community Center at Kettering University

I first introduced FIRST robotics to Kettering University, my alma mater, in 1997. Back then, an old gymnasium on campus was being used for storage and I was able to place a piece of carpet down in the corner for community teams to practice on.  My colleague, Dr. Henry Kowalski, recognized the space as an opportunity for FIRST community teams supported and/or sponsored by Kettering. In 2014, the FIRST Robotics Community Center opened its doors on our Flint, Michigan, campus.

Home to eight FIRST Robotics Competition teams, the Center includes a full-sized practice field, a machine shop, and a design and programming lab. Beyond that, our Center offers so much more than a warm space for teams to meet and store their equipment during Michigan winters. The FIRST Robotics Community Center is a year-round STEM education hub meeting several needs in the Flint community. Here’s how:

We are a collaboration space
The eight high-school FIRST Robotics Competition teams based at the FIRST Robotics Community Center consistently collaborate with each other on strategy, design, build, and resources. This collaborative atmosphere exists even though they are creating different robots and will be competing against each other. We also house practice fields for FIRST programs and host end-of-year and off-season competitions for FIRST Robotics Competition, FIRST Tech Challenge, and FIRST LEGO League. I see centers similar to ours as the future of FIRST, particularly for high schools that don’t have the resources, space, equipment, or mentors to build robots and/or host FIRST teams and events.

We are a knowledge hub
One of the biggest challenges for FIRST teams is finding mentors. Finding teachers/mentors within the schools are critical for the long-term sustainability of the programs. The FIRST Center has partnered with Flint Community Schools and the Crim Fitness Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Flint that leads after-school programming at each school, to train teachers, mentors, and students. For teachers who are new to robotics and may be somewhat intimidated, the training really helps excite and motivate them, and often I see a light go on!  They are then anxious to take it back to the classroom.  We are now offering teacher training to other school districts.

We host many FIRST summer camps (27 last summer) for elementary, middle, and high school students and a preseason fall workshop series that is open to any FIRST Robotics Competition teams (mentors and students) in Michigan to attend for programming, electrical, mechanical, and machine shop training – at no charge. Programming workshops include C++, Java, LabVIEW, and more.  These workshops really help teams prepare for the next FIRST season.

We recently started a series called “Engineering Inspiration Talks.” We invite technology leaders to talk to students and share their cool technology. We want to inspire and motivate students to see there are so many different choices for career paths.

We are a STEM outreach center
Reaching out into the community is part of our mission at Kettering. Our goal was to get involved in the community and get more kids interested in STEM careers, and FIRST is a key way we accomplish that.

Last summer, Ford Motor Company sponsored a two-week summer camp at the Center for Flint High School students, in which students received free SAT Prep training, learned to program an autonomous Ford Mustang, and designed and built a robot to compete at the end of the camp. Two students from the summer camp are now on the Flint F.I.R.E. FIRST Robotics Competition team, including a programmer who I hope will be a future Kettering student. He was the key to getting the robot built.

Through a grant, we’re working with Flint Community Schools to pilot a FIRST LEGO League camp at an elementary school and to support five FIRST LEGO League teams started this year. We hope to add 12 or 13 more teams by the end of this year. We’ve received significant grant program and foundation support. It is vital that we serve our community.

We are a university
This year, approximately 30 percent of Kettering’s incoming freshmen are FIRST alumni. In fact, in partnership with FIRST, Kettering University awards up to 50 scholarships to FIRST alumni each year, with a five-year value of up to $25,000. Kettering is proud to have awarded over $4 million dollars in FIRST Scholarships since 1999.

Some of our undergraduate students eagerly help us manage the FIRST Center through college work-study, and many Kettering students and FIRST alumni mentor or coach FIRST teams. It creates a strong bond between our Kettering students and high school students from Flint and the surrounding communities.

Our Center’s location is critical to its success. We’re on the campus of a university. FIRST teams and Flint students gain access to our students, faculty, and alumni – and become more comfortable in the university environment. Kettering students get to take advantage of their engineering skills and work within their community. That’s a win-win-win for FIRST, for the greater Flint community, and for Kettering.

Learn how FIRST is closing the STEM gap in Michigan.



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FIRST enabled my pursuit of medical research

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Sarah Rudasill


FIRST Alum Sarah Rudasill, from FIRST Robotics Competition Team 4266, the New Oxford GhostBotics, from New Oxford, Pennsylvania, received the Bart Kamen Memorial FIRST Scholarship. Participating in FIRST inspired Sarah toward research in the translational sciences, and her FIRST Scholarship has provided financial freedom and mentorship as she pursues an academic surgical career.

What did you do after becoming a FIRST Alum?
After I graduated high school, I attended Wake Forest University. I graduated in 2017 with a degree in Economics and now I’m at UCLA for medical school.

What are your future plans?
I intend to pursue an academic surgical career, where I will balance patient care, clinical research, and teaching responsibilities. I’m so excited to study medicine, see patients in our volunteer clinic, and conduct clinical research.

How has your FIRST experience impact your post-graduation life?
FIRST demonstrated how abstract scientific principles could be applied to practical problems, which inspired me to pursue research in the translational sciences. Medicine is a fantastic avenue for translating scientific discoveries into tangible improvements in healthcare. Being the recipient of the Dr. Bart Kamen Memorial FIRST Scholarship gave me the financial freedom to pursue research projects of interest, and I am fortunate to have met many great researchers and physicians who have shaped my career trajectory.

You shared that you’ve made and kept great FIRST friends – any advice to current Participants on how to do that?
I was a fortunate recipient in the first class of Bart Kamen Scholars, so I’ve kept in touch with other scholars and subsequent classes. I look forward to mentoring future generations of Bart Kamen Scholars through the long medical training process.

What is your favorite FIRST memory?
I helped to found a brand-new team, and our first competition in Baltimore will always be a fond memory. We didn’t come close to winning, but it was a thrill to be surrounded by so many passionate and brilliant future scientists.

What is the best piece of advice you have received?
When starting any new endeavor, your attitude and effort will determine the outcome. 

Visit for more FIRST Alumni spotlights. Share your story for a chance to be featured.

FIRST Impact Jul. 23 2018| 0 KB

Content Type:

FIRST works closely with research and academic organizations to provide tangible evidence of our impact on students’ education and career choices.

View the interactive FIRST Longitudinal Study Infographic or download the PDF - Released December 2017

See also FIRST Impact web page.

FIRST Impact Infographic - Released January 2017

FIRST STEM Equity Community Innovation Grant

FIRST Longitudinal Study 



FIRST Tech Challenge

FIRST Robotics Competition

FIRST Alumni

Sources for the FIRST Impact Infographic:


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FIRST inspires my child to build, code, and create

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Christina Blais

Parent, FIRST LEGO League, Winsted, Connecticut

When I heard about the FIRST LEGO League program, I knew it would be a great idea for my son to join. I was excited about the new ideas my son would learn about engineering, teamwork, and good values. We were brand new to the program and weren't sure what to expect. His mentor, Justin Ivey (a FIRST AmeriCorps VISTA member), has been a good inspiration and has encouraged the team to bring out ideas they never thought they had.

My son enjoys building and programming the robots and creating a project from ground up with the help of his team members and encouragement from their mentor. He comes home excited to tell us about the new things he learned, whether it’s about coding the robot to complete a mission in the game, or a new fact about the water cycle for the team’s project. I’m glad that he joined FIRST LEGO League and to see the excitement it brought to my son. I can’t wait to see what the rest of the season has in store. 


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FIRST inspires community heroes

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Terri Willingham

FIRST Volunteer, Coach, Mentor, Florida; Former FIRST Regional Director

“In today’s world, the advances in STEM are booming, creating opportunities for today’s youth like never before. Terri Willingham will tell you these are only tools. If children aren’t educated in these fields, the advances mean nothing. So for the last 12 years, Terri has been volunteering to fully engage students of all ages with the STEM fields, introducing them to robotics, coding programs, digital asset development, and more. To date, her STEM efforts have positively impacted tens of thousands of young people across Florida. She’s worked tirelessly to inspire the next generation of leaders, builders, and dreamers to build better communities for tomorrow. And that’s why you, Terri, are our hero.” – Braydon Coburn, Tampa Bay Lightning

During the 2017-2018 season, the Tampa Bay Lightning honored Terri Willingham as a Lightning Community Hero. Willingham was recognized for her work providing guidance to schools and communities in the development of FIRST programs, as well as her work developing the Foundation for Community Driven Innovation’s Advanced Manufacturing and Robotics Center (AMRoC). Seeded by an Argosy Foundation grant, the center will be a FIRST hub for Central Florida and provide a training and talent pipeline for STEM careers in the area, giving youth a clear pathway to a high-paying future and adults an opportunity to improve their own earning potential.

Willingham, who received $50,000 from the Lightning Foundation and the Lightning Community Heroes program, donated $35,000 of the award to the Foundation for Community Driven Innovation (FCDI) for the ROBOTICON FIRST showcase and off-season event, as well as AMRoC. She donated the balance to other area nonprofits, most of whom partner with FCDI in the development and organization of local FIRST related programs and events, including St. Petersburg College Foundation, Tampa Bay Robotics Foundation, Metropolitan Ministries for their FIRST Tech Challenge team “Coding Hope,” and Central Florida Robotics via Polk State College Foundation.

“While I am deeply honored for the recognition, no one can be a community hero in a vacuum,” says Willingham. “The organizations I shared the award grant with are the real ‘community heroes’ – the people who believe in the long-term power of mentor-driven, character-based STEM education like FIRST offers. They see the big picture: how meaningful adult engagement that helps youth learn and succeed today makes a brighter future possible for all of us tomorrow. None of the great projects and programs I've been part of would be possible without the amazing community army of which I’m so grateful to be a part.”

Why You Should Consider Supporting STEM Education This Holiday Season

Dec 19, 2017 By Mark Giordono, Vice President of Development, FIRST


With STEM jobs on the rise, it’s an incredible time to be a curious child. However, all kids need equitable access to STEM engagement opportunities and relevant mentorship to build a foundation for a bright future. Supporting STEM education helps kids find their passion and reach their goals.


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FIRST inspires engineers

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Nicki Bonczyk

FIRST Alum, Volunteer, Mentor, and Coach

FIRST Alum Nicki Bonczyk fell in love with engineering after joining FIRST Robotics Competition team 107, R.O.B.O.T.I.C.S., from Holland, Michigan. After high school, she studied product design and manufacturing engineering and interned for JR Automation, eventually landing a full-time job there as a mechanical engineer – her dream job. “Not only did I already know tons of people there because so many employees volunteer at FIRST events, but I get paid to play with robots all day,” Nicki says. “Can you think of a better job?”

How did you get involved with FIRST?
I was born and raised in Holland, Michigan, and I used to dream of becoming an architect. My dad, Bob Bonczyk, has been involved with FIRST for more than 20 years now, so it’s always been around my life. My mom, Michelle Bonczyk, a 14-year mentor, used to take me to FIRST events when I was little and I would see just how fun robotics was.  Naturally, when I got to high school, I joined Team 107 and fell in love with engineering and the idea of being an engineer.

What did you do after becoming a FIRST Alum?
After high school, I went to Grand Valley State University (GVSU) for Product Design and Manufacturing Engineering. I had developed a passion for mechanical engineering while on the team in high school, and GVSU was a great fit. Being that GVSU hosted a FIRST event (now the West Michigan District Event), I had a chance to see the university and its passion for FIRST.  GVSU has a great Co-op program, and I got work experience before I graduated through my internship at JR Automation.

After graduation, I continued to work at JR Automation and shifted from an intern to a full-time mechanical engineer, which is really a dream job! Not only did I already know tons of people there because so many employees volunteer at FIRST events, but I get paid to play with robots all day – can you think of a better job?

You’ve continued to be involved with FIRST as an Alum; what have you been up to?
I’ve stayed really involved with FIRST since becoming an alum. I help coach a FIRST Tech Challenge team with my mom and a few other FIRST Alumni and help Team 107 with CAD, as well as work with my employer to provide a full-sized practice field for the area teams to use. I’m also a head referee and volunteer coordinator for Michigan events.

How do you balance FIRST volunteering with school and work?
When I was still a student at GVSU, I made a point to put school and completing my engineering degree first.  So, I decided to volunteer at events while I was completing my degree. Depending on the semester, I could do two to six events a year.

Now that I am working full time, my schedule is a little more predictable.  I have been able to start up a FIRST Tech Challenge team and work with the local middle school students a few nights a week.  I can give my parents a hand when they need it.  I got lucky by finding a company to work for that really supports FIRST.  With so many events being held in Michigan, there are many opportunities for myself and my coworkers to volunteers.  It has been great to get more coworkers involved at the events as volunteers.

Visit for more FIRST Alumni spotlights. Share your story for a chance to be featured.

It's Important to Support STEM All Year Round

Dec 06, 2017 By Jay Flores, Global STEM Ambassador, Rockwell Automation

It’s important to keep students challenged, especially during breaks from school. Equally as important is the atmosphere. Rule one: have fun. Jay Flores, global STEM ambassador for Rockwell Automation, explores interesting ways to keep kids involved in learning, even when school’s out.