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FIRST helped me break out of my shell, lead, and teach

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Jaci Brunning

FIRST Alum, Volunteer & Mentor

FIRST alum Jaci Brunning was part of FIRST Robotics Competition Team 5333 “Can’t C#” and Team 5663 “Ground Control” in Perth, Western Australia. Her FIRST mentors helped her learn about the engineering and design process and break out of her shell to become a team leader. Now, Jaci is also helping transform FIRST participants as a team mentor. She was named a 2019 Woodie Flowers Award Finalist, which celebrates effective communication in the art and science of engineering and design, after being nominated by her students. “I try to carry and develop the same experiences and lessons I learned as a student to my students,” Jaci says.

What did you do after becoming a FIRST alum?
I will graduate from Curtin University with a dual degree in computer systems engineering and computer science in 2021. I plan to keep pushing limits of what is possible within robotics and education. It sounds cliché, but robotics and engineering as a discipline are no where near as utilized as they should be in the educational space, especially in areas which have not yet adopted an interest in STEM. I want to give students experiences that matter.

What advice do you have for current FIRST participants?
Always ask why! Every solution to every problem starts with a “why.” The more you ask why, the more you will understand the problem, and the more thoughtful your solutions will be.

How has your FIRST experience impacted your post-graduation life?
Before joining FIRST, I was really shy and didn’t really fit into the norms of my region. My high school computer science class had five students and my advanced math class had three. I joined FIRST on a whim, after a school excursion to Curtin University. I was plopped into the captain and driver roles by my lead mentor at the time, Nav. By the end of the season, my shell had broken. The lead mentor of our second team, Tom, taught me the properties and importance of process in engineering and design, which translated well to my background of programming and mathematics.

Flash-forward to 2019, and now I am one of the two lead mentors of our program. I try to carry and develop the same experiences and lessons I learned as a student to my students. I want to make sure the per-student impact is as high as possible, which means a combination of interpersonal development and thoughtful approach to design.

What is your favorite FIRST related memory?
Winning the Woodie Flowers Finalist Award at the 2019 South Pacific Regional is without a doubt my favorite memory. Nothing compares to the shiver down your spine the instant you realize the person they are talking about is you, and knowing that it comes from the words of your students means everything.

You shared that you’ve made and kept great FIRST friends/established a great network within the FIRST community – any advice to current participants on how to do that?
Most of my FIRST friendships start at an event, or in a Facebook message, or an email. Sharing an interest is usually all it takes to keep a great network of friends in FIRST, but the personal, close connections happen by working together. It is impossible not to have friends in this program, due to how open and kind everyone is. Whether it’s just sitting down to have a chat, or asking for help on a particularly tricky problem, others in FIRST are always there.

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