Tuesday, January 24, 2012

National Mentoring Month Shout-Out: Stewart Leicester

Stewart Leicester signed up as mentor to his son's high school robotics class four years ago. The kid dropped out, but the dad kept going. He was having too much fun.

"I really enjoyed engineering as a teenager," said the 56-year-old Bay Area resident and self-employed software programmer. "The joy you get from building stuff is hard to impart because a lot of schools don't have auto shop, they don't have the vocational training. I just thought that any way I could introduce kids to that kind of a thing would be worth doing. Then we'd get more kids involved in engineering."

Four years later, the mechatronics mentor still has the time of his life coaching San Ramon's California High School robotics and engineering students. In recognition of National Mentoring Month, we'd like to highlight Stewart's volunteer work. As a sponsor of Bay Area high school teams each year participating in FIRST, we regularly touch base with  mentors like Stewart. Their dedication inspires us — their excitement is contagious.

"It's true that if you have a passion for something, you find time to do it," he said. "I just want to help these kids discover that engineering is fun. They don't know that until you show them."

President Barack Obama declared January this year National Mentoring Month, a tradition he struck up in 2009 to encourage the nation to foster positive relationships with our youth. Mentoring is vital, agrees Bishop-Wisecarver founder Bud Wisecarver, especially since U.S. schools rank so poorly academically.

"That just underscores how important it is to have one-on-one time with students," Bud said. "I've been involved in local schools helping out where I can since 1957 when I first started volunteering for an ROP class."

Stewart said he feels lucky to have figured out his own passion for engineering at such a young age. By the time he enrolled in college at Washington State University, he knew he'd major in electrical engineering. After college, his career veered into different types of software design, a profession he still he continues to practice today.

The volunteer work also gives the Seattle native a chance to keep a foot in the door. Plus, he says he really believes in the program. It's an excellent way to give students a sense of what it's like to have a real engineering job.

"The FRC large robot competition is probably the best introduction to real world engineering, mostly because of the deadlines," he said. "But also, there's the teamwork, the pressure, the prototypes."

A robotics class teaches a lot, but kids miss out on that sense of urgency felt during a FIRST contest, much like a real on-the-job, deadline-driven engineering project.

"That's one of the more enjoyable aspects, is knowing that what they learn here can be applied to their career down the road," Stewart said.

But mentorship is a two-way street, he added. For every lesson he imparts to the students, Stewart said he comes away with an epiphany of his own.

"It's interesting to see the way these kids think," he said. "One thing about experience is that you get used to routine and think less and less outside the box, because you think you know. I've gone into something thinking I know what to do and these kids challenge me, they come up with a solution I'd never imagine. It's great."

Mentoring keeps you on your toes, Leicester said. For that, too, he's grateful.

"I would encourage other people to get involved in promoting technology to kids," he said. "They're at a point in their lives where they don't know what they're missing out on. They need someone to show them how cool it is to design and build robots, something hands-on like this ... it's really an artistic outlet."

For more about how to become a mentor, go to [ NationalMentoringMonth.org ] — become someone's inspiration! For more info about mentoring for FIRST, check out [ www.first.org ]