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“Robots in the Outback” Sends Robots – and Mentors – to Remote Australia


The Australian Outback community of Ivanhoe – population 150 – had just one student in two decades go on to university before FIRST came to town in 2015, through a partnership with IvanhoeGoogle Australia to bring new FIRST teams to underserved areas. FIRST Mentors, including members of Sydney-based Team 3132 “Thunder Down Under,” worked with all 32 kids in Ivanhoe’s K-12 school to start FIRST Robotics Competition, FIRST LEGO League, and FIRST LEGO League Jr. teams. After competing alongside Thunder Down Under – Australia’s founding FIRST Robotics Competition team – at the 2015 Australia Regional, many of Ivanhoe’s high school students were considering university.

The Mentors were struck by the gratitude they received from parents and teachers in Ivanhoe. “They kept thanking us for not forgetting their kids,” Outreach Mentor Sarah Heimlich said. Everyone else had decided this remote Outback town, with very little mobile phone coverage, was too hard to reach. That sparked a desire for Thunder Down Under, whose mission is “STEM for everyone, everywhere,” to help expand the “Robots in the Outback” (RITO) initiative.

Expanding in the Outback

BuildFIRST secured a Google Australia grant for $330,000 to scale RITO. RITO started 75 FIRST LEGO League teams in rural and remote Australia in the 2015-2016 season, and 11 new 2016 FIRST Robotics Competition teams in schools in the Outback. To help them get started and overcome concerns, the 11 FIRST Robotics Competition teams each received two-day visits from a group of experienced FIRST Mentors:  NASA Engineer Tyler Todd-Evans, “Thunder Down Under” Alum James McArthur, and Iowa Senior Mentor Andy Marshall. They helped the teachers step back and the students take ownership. “Being there in person, being committed to their success and their discovery, assured them,” Marshall said.   

One of the rookie teams they visited was Team 6035 “House of Ulladulla.” “The support was a game-changer,” Mentor Matt Macdonell said. “The two days with the RITO Mentors was the turnaround from me telling the team when we had to meet, to them telling me when they wanted to meet.”

An Outback Community Rallies

The support continued for Ulladulla after the rookie team qualified for, and attended, the 2016 FIRST Championship in St. Louis. Each RITO Mentor sought the team out at the Championship, answering questions and easing their nerves. “They have become role models in mentorship, which we hope to emulate and pass on to other teams we meet along our FIRST journey,” Macdonell said.Ulladulla

Ulladulla was supported not just by RITO but their town of 17,000. After qualifying for the Championship at the 2016 Australia Regional, the team had just five weeks to fundraise and secure passports and approval to travel overseas – a process that typically takes nine months in Australia. The community sprang into action, raising more than AUD$70,000 to completely fund the team’s travel to St. Louis.

After returning from the Championship, the team grew from 9 to 50 students. They started RoboCamp workshops and FIRST LEGO League and FIRST LEGO League Jr. teams. “Robotics and coding is now the norm in the community,” said Macdonell, who gets stopped by strangers with questions so much that he has to make sure he’s not wearing any FIRST-related gear if he needs to run a time-sensitive errand during the school day.

STEM for Everyone 

RITO had a fast impact on many of the Outback communities they reached. Teachers in Narooma (population 2,400) began using FIRST to help reintegrate autistic students into mainstream classes, while its students ran RoboCamp workshops to help their team become self-sustaining (RITO offers teams no-interest loan robotics kits so they can fundraise with RoboCamps). “It’s remarkable to go from nothing to everything in about six months,” Heimlich said.

FIRST LEGO LeagueThat thought was echoed by Macdonell, whose Outback team’s graduating seniors all went on to STEM education or jobs: “The growth and confidence students gained in six months is unbelievable.” One of Macdonell’s students was exemplary in school but didn’t have post-secondary education plans; he was instead going to work on his family’s property and drive excavators. After hearing a speech from a Monsanto representative at the Championship, the student began to look into getting an agriculture degree.

Reaching these students in the remote Outback with STEM opportunities is not only a boost to student success; it’s critical for Australia. The country is facing a STEM skills shortage. 74% of Australian CEOs say availability of key skills, including tech skills, is a top threat to growth, according to a 2015 PwC report. A PwC analysis found that shifting just 1% of the Australian workforce into STEM would increase GDP by AUD$57.4 billion. 

This winter, RITO will return to the Outback to help more rookie teams find footing. And thanks to teams like Ulladulla and Narooma stepping up to mentor new teams, “We are already starting to see this cycle where we don’t need to go back into an area,” Heimlich said.