FIRST Newsletter - October, 2013 - FIRST Community Members Prove FIRST is for Life

FIRST Newsletter masthead



FIRST Community Members Prove FIRST is for Life


Many former student participants, Volunteers, Mentors, and other members of the FIRST Community have at least one thing in common: they just can’t quit FIRST! We are amazed by the level of commitment and longevity displayed by the passionate members of our Community. We are delighted to share the stories of a few FIRST Community members who continue to be inspired by FIRST, even as they venture into new chapters of their professional lives.


Name: Aaron Schmitz

Hometown: Eden Prairie, Minnesota

FIRST History: Aaron participated in FIRST LEGO League (FLL) while he was in 4th, 5th, and 6th grades. While taking advanced level courses at a local university in Minnesota, he met members of FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) Team 2502 “Talon Robotics,” and was invited to join the team in 2011 during his junior year of high school. During his first year with the team, Aaron primarily worked on programming. During his second year with the team, and his senior year of high school, Aaron was the lead CAD (Computer Aided Design) designer, an experience he described as very similar to his current job.

Where is he now? After graduating high school in the spring of 2012, Aaron already had two years of college credits under his belt from the advanced courses he completed. He did his “freshman” year at the University of Minnesota and graduated in the spring of 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a minor in computer science. Not bad for a 19-year-old!

While he was still in college, he spoke with a campus recruiter for Microsoft and applied for a position. He was offered a job for after graduation, and he is now a Hardware Engineer at the company’s headquarters in Redmond, Wash. Aaron describes the position as “lots of fun” and admits it’s “not that different from working on a robot.”

As Alum, Aaron continues to be active in the FIRST Community by mentoring teams. He mentored his alma mater team, as well as several FLL teams, during the 2013 season. He is now mentoring FLL and FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) teams in the Redmond area, and working to revitalize the FIRST Community at Microsoft. The FTC students Aaron mentors come from a low-income area in Seattle, and are bused in to meet three times a week on the Microsoft campus.

“The reason I was able to get this job was because of what I gained through FIRST,” explained Aaron.

FIRST Impact: “The technical aspect of being on the FRC team was great, but the most valuable things were the leadership and project management experience,” said Aaron. “What I got from mentoring and volunteering, especially with setting up FLL and FTC affiliate programs, improved my ability to keep track of lots of different tasks and communicate with people – these skills have been really valuable to me in the professional world.”

Name: Elaine Houston

Hometown: Poughkeepsie, New York

FIRST Family: While Elaine never participated in a FIRST program as a student, she has a long history of mentoring FIRST LEGO League (FLL) teams, and her entire family is involved with FIRST in some way. Her father, John, is the FLL Operational Partner for Hudson Valley; her middle sister, Claire, started in Junior FIRST LEGO League (Jr.FLL) and now, at 16, is participating in FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) and mentoring FLL teams; and her youngest sister, JoAnna, is 12 years old and participating in FLL. Of course, Elaine’s mother is along for the FIRST ride, and jokingly describes herself as a “Robo-Widow.”

“We live and breathe FIRST in our family,” said Elaine. “My desk is still covered with LEGO® MINDSTORM® NXT sets.”

Elaine began mentoring FLL teams in 2005 (her senior year of high school), during the OCEAN ODYSSEY Challenge. However, it was long before this that Elaine recognized that she had a future in engineering.

“It started in preschool,” she admitted. “My mom said I was four years old when I first said I wanted to be an engineer. And then in second grade, I said I wanted to be a robotic engineer.”

When Elaine was in high school, her father asked her where she wanted to go with robotics. It was then that she considered focusing on assistive technology and prosthetics. As a wheelchair user herself, she had a personal interest in the area, but was more interested in improving the quality of life for all people.

“I wanted to help real people with real problems in the world around me,” she explained.

Where is she now? Elaine has made her dream of helping others a reality – in more ways than one. In May 2010, Elaine graduated from Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology with a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering. Following graduation, Elaine was accepted into the Rehabilitation Science and Technology Ph.D. program at the University of Pittsburgh and is currently in her fourth year of study.

“I knew I wanted to be here because my disability wasn’t an issue,” said Elaine. “I had the ability to develop soft skills, like giving a presentation. I have people to look up to here – it’s not commonly seen; people with disabilities in leadership positions.”

Elaine’s Ph.D. advisor Dr. Rory Cooper, renowned expert in wheelchair technology, inspired her to pursue her graduate degree and eagerly offered to be her advisor before she even applied to the program.

“Dr. Cooper is interested in supporting and developing students with disabilities,” said Elaine. “He wants to give them opportunities and see them succeed.”

For the last three years, Elaine has been a member of a research team at the Human Engineering Research Lab working on interface design for PerMMA (Personal Mobility and Manipulation Appliance), a robotic wheelchair with two robotic arms to allow people with significant disabilities to perform tasks independently and spontaneously, both at home and in the community. The project was inspired by a student who had an upper spinal cord injury, and it has been evolving for the past eight years.

“We ask ourselves how we can provide power chair users with day-to-day independence and the ability to spontaneously interact with the world around them,” explained Elaine. “How can we make it possible for people to do everyday tasks such as reheating a meal?”

Although she has greater capabilities than many of the target users, Elaine’s input is instrumental in both the development and testing phases of the PerMMA. At the present time, she is working on touch screen and voice control options that allow those with significant disabilities to control computers.

“We are thinking critically about how the person controls the system while they are sitting in the chair,” said Elaine. “We are looking at extreme situations like someone who only has mobility in one finger.”

Elaine and her colleagues at the Human Engineering Research Lab are modernizing the field of assistive technology by developing intelligent systems that are supportive of people with disabilities, the aging population, and beyond.

Watch a video featuring the PerMMA in action, with Elaine using a touchscreen interface she helped develop to control PerMMA to work in the machine shop.

FIRST Impact: Despite her demanding schedule (which includes participation on a local Quad Rugby team in Pittsburgh), Elaine is still committed to providing STEM-learning opportunities for young people – especially for those who have disabilities. For three years, Elaine has volunteered with TechLink, where she has earned the nickname “Tech Wizard.” TechLink is a Pittsburgh-based robotics outreach program that connects students with disabilities to their able-bodied peers through STEM-focused activities like FLL. Much like FIRST, the goal of TechLink is to encourage excitement and knowledge about STEM careers, but with a focus on including students with disabilities.

Through TechLink, Elaine has continued to mentor FLL teams. She is always cognizant of what modifications can be made so that even students with significant disabilities can fully participate as members of their team.

“One season we had a child who was ventilator dependent,” said Elaine. “We were able to send another child during a match to be an extra set of hands, so that the child with the disability was still able to compete. I’m always thinking about how to give opportunities to kids who might not have had them otherwise.”

For students with other disabilities, like autism, simple modifications such as reserving a “quiet room” can be extremely helpful for students who are overwhelmed by the noise level of at events. By implementing the appropriate modifications, students of any ability level can fully participate and reap the benefits of STEM programs like FLL.

Elaine recalled an autistic student who would often have “meltdowns” during team meetings. It wasn’t long before Elaine realized how to play into this student’s strengths so he could be fully utilized on the team.

“I found that he loved sorting LEGO bricks, so that became his job,” explained Elaine. “Acquiring materials is a vital role, so he was responsible for going to get the pieces his teammates needed.”

With simple modifications and an eye for a student’s strengths and weaknesses, Elaine is able to ensure that all of her students play a vital role on the teams she coaches. By being valued members of their team, these students gain self-confidence and the focus is placed on what they can do, as opposed to the other way around.

“I love seeing that moment when a child’s eyes light up because they’re being included in things they normally wouldn’t have been,” said Elaine. “We see the development of these students along the pipeline, and many of them go on to STEM careers.”

Once she gets her Ph.D., Elaine would like to be more actively involved with FIRST and coach teams that aren’t “traditional.”

“I want to help make FIRST bigger and more inclusive for students with disabilities,” said Elaine.

Back to Newsletter