Workforce Development / STEM Education / Skills Gap / Changing Workforce

Building a future in engineering, one FIRST LEGO League at a time

"It gave us this tangible exposure to what we could be doing for the rest of our lives if we so choose."

By Christine LaFave Grace, managing editor

Supporting STEM in schools and communities is a high-profile priority for a growing number of manufacturers and other industrial production companies in the U.S. Whether that takes the form of sponsoring a local high school robotics team or hosting an on-site event to let students see what a manufacturing floor today looks like, this kind of engagement is viewed as a way to strengthen community connections and maybe spark the kind of interest that inspires students to pursue studies that could land them a job in industry locally down the line. 

Does that really happen, though? Amid competing demands for resources both as a company and individually, how worthwhile is it for manufacturers to get involved in outreach at the high school, or even junior high or grade-school level? Dee Karabowicz has a unique perspective on that question—she's a mechanical engineer for Thales Defense and Security in Aurora, Ill., and she also just took over as a key industry leader and partner with the FIRST LEGO League Junior program in Chicago's far western suburbs. Beyond that, Karabowicz got her start in engineering as a participant in FIRST robotics challenges as a student.

PS: To start off, can you tell me a little bit about how you got involved in the FIRST program as a student? How did you become aware of it, and what sparked your interest?

DK: So, the first time I ever heard about FIRST programs was when I was in elementary school. As a fifth-grader in an advanced math program, we were approached by the middle school computer science teacher to see if we’d be interested in joining a FIRST LEGO League team that they were planning to start up the next school year. That first year as a team there were six of us, there were four boys, two girls. None of us knew what we were doing, we had a teacher who was just starting to learn the ropes, and we had six mentors who were all in middle school as well and were trying to figure out what we were supposed to be doing. The six of us the first year had so much fun, we came back the next year, and then the next year. As we kept coming back, our program kept growing, past what our school supported, and developed into a larger program in our area.

PS: Can you tell me a little bit about what your participation looked like at that time? What kinds of activities and competitions were you involved in then?

DK: We were starting out at a really early point in the FIRST LEGO League programs in Illinois. So, our competition was the six of us working together to build a LEGO robot and then programming it using the LEGO Mindstorm software. We were building and programming our robots to complete small tasks on a larger field that was 4-foot by 8-foot that we would work on throughout the course of the season. So, we worked for four months during the course of that fifth-grade school year to try to solve these missions. And none of us had ever built robots out of LEGOs before, most of us had never tried to program anything before, and so, we were learning from the ground up that foundation of how you can do these things, of how you can solve these problems together.

PS: That’s really cool. How did your involvement in FIRST help cultivate your interest in engineering and make you realize that, “Hey, this is something that maybe I could spend my life doing?”

DK: It was a slow development. I’ve always been math- and science-inclined. I always liked taking things apart and putting them back together, and I liked the idea of troubleshooting, and the idea of problems and working through things to find solutions. But I had never been engaged for that long on the same problem, and what it did was it worked to kind of put out there that you can get the social aspect, you can get the teamwork, you can learn how to work with different people, you can be learning new skills and trying to solve a problem together, and then have a tangible demonstration of that problem you were solving that is what engineering is, and at such a  young age, it’s great. It gave us this tangible exposure to what we could be doing for the rest of our lives if we so choose. As we kept getting older and as new teams formed within us and as our challenges grew age appropriately, that same trend continued. And then, all of this was coupled with the fact that we had parents and teachers and older students who were all also engaged in what we were doing, and they were starting to mentor us. They were showing us different things we could be doing, or what we could be doing in future careers, and guiding us through this process that’s difficult in the first place, but with mentors and adults helping you, it gets easier.

PS: From a practical perspective, if an individual or a company is looking at possibly getting involved in a program like this from FIRST, from LEGO League, in your experience, what does that involvement look like? What are we looking at as far as a time commitment, or the nature of how you’re involved, what kind of meetings you’re attending, or a time commitment for judging, that kind of thing? What does that look like for someone who’s maybe interested in participating?

DK: For impactful involvement, I kind of look at this two ways: a company or employees could go the route of engaging directly with teams throughout their season and mentoring them through their design process, and as they work to develop things and as they work to learn things, and that could be weekly or monthly engagement for parts of the school year; but then there’s also that shorter term engagement where you come in at an event, and you’re that professional that’s interviewing and talking to the team, and getting them to share their information-that involvement is a day or two. So, it’s not like you have to ask employees to commit to hundreds of hours throughout the year to do things. Sometimes it’s eight hours and you can have impactful engagement, and kids can learn about what you do, and you can learn about what the kids are doing.

PS: And that so often gets overlooked. When we talk about getting involved in schools, it’s “Oh gosh, I’m going to be doing something weekly for the duration of the school year.” The fact that you have opportunities to do these shorter engagements, what kind of relationships can that spark, and how can that inspire individuals who are getting involved, maybe it’s a one-time thing this year, but maybe down the line, they would be looking at a weekly or monthly engagement.

DK: Right, and so, one of the things is kids are sometimes so afraid to get involved in things, and even as adults sometimes, I think, we’re so afraid to get involved in things – we’re worried about time commitment, we’re worried about how much of a drain things are going to be. You can start small. Starting small shows you that it’s possible. You can make your engagement and involvement more as you want to throughout the years. You can start off by offering, if your team is interested, we’d like to have a design review with you guys, and you can use some of our engineers. That might be one meeting, but the team might get so much information out of that meeting that the employees in the company might say, “What if we mentor this team throughout their season? What if we mentored all of these teams in the area throughout their seasons?”

Click here to listen to the entire interview.

FIRST Illinois Robotics is in need of additional volunteers for the 2019-'20 school year! Interested in volunteering on a one-time or more-frequent basis? Contact Dee Karabowicz at or visit https://www.firstillinoisrobotics.org/fll/volunteer.html

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