Celebrating a partnership for robotics education

The mission of FIRST Robotics Canada is to promote robotics alongside science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects to Canadian youth. To do this FIRST organizes robotics competitions for students from elementary to high school. Students design, build and program robots to compete in a variety of fun challenges, from shooting balls into hoops to stacking boxes. FIRST provides resources, mentorship and support to participating teams, giving them the foundation to work together and use their ingenuity to solve problems.

This April, the University of Waterloo’s Faculty of Engineering received the inaugural Educational Partner Award from FIRST Robotics Canada. Waterloo is the first institution to receive this honour - testament to a long history of collaboration and support.

"One of the big sayings in FIRST Robotics is ’More than Robots,’" said Armaan Sengupta, a second-year mechanical and mechatronics student. Sengupta credits FIRST with giving him hands-on engineering experience and guiding his career ambitions.

"I was always interested in engineering, but my FIRST experience showed me that this is something I really enjoy and want to do. It really clarified things for me. When I applied to universities, I exclusively applied for mechatronics engineering."

Waterloo leadership was quick to understand the value of FIRST Robotics competitions in their ability to inspire students and highlight the value of STEM education. In 2005 Dr. Rob Gorbet, a professor in the Department of Mechanical and Mechatronics Engineering, and Dr. Maud Gorbet, a professor in the Department of Systems Design Engineering, with the support of then Waterloo Engineering dean Dr. Adel Sedra, reached out to the organization and offered to host the competition on campus grounds. This makes the Waterloo FIRST Robotics competition the longest running in Canada.

Dr. Peter Teertstra, a lecturer in the Department of Mechanical and Mechatronics Engineering and director of the Student Design Centre, now leads the planning of Waterloo’s FIRST competitions. He emphasizes the experience of the team that puts together the event each year. "That’s the neat thing about hosting at Waterloo, everybody has been doing this for so many years."

This legacy of successful partnership also includes established mentorship connections in the Waterloo community. Daniel Delattre, associate director of IT Operations for Waterloo Engineering, has worked with students at St. David Catholic Secondary School for many years, successfully guiding teams through the competition process. Other Waterloo Engineering staff and faculty have also been influential in setting up links with local businesses that provide sponsorship or services like welding. "Students have a network of people who can help them," says Teertstra.

Waterloo’s involvement with FIRST Robotics Canada is part of broader effort to get young people excited about STEM. The success of this approach is evident in new generations of Waterloo undergrads. As part of his role Teertstra hires co-op students for the Student Design Centre. "It’s amazing the number of first-year co-op students that want to work for me who have FIRST experience." Students who have participated in FIRST competitions are present across the University’s faculties, such is the reach of the organization and the strength of partnership with Waterloo.

The award, accepted by Waterloo Engineering dean Dr. Mary Wells, recognizes the University’s commitment to providing youth in the Waterloo Region with valuable and foundational learning experiences. Reflecting on what motivates them to continue this collaboration, Teertstra highlighted the words of another former Waterloo Engineering dean Dr. Pearl Sullivan. During the process of renewing the memorandum of understanding with FIRST Sullivan said, "We have to do this, how can we be engineering educators in Canada and not do this.’"

Since 2005 the profile of FIRST has grown nationally and internationally. There are now nine district events in Ontario, and provincial champions go on to participate in the World Championships held in Detroit, Michigan.
Jack Weatherston