Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Q&A with Northern California FIRST Senior Mentor Teri Benart

Bishop-Wisecarver is proud to be a Diamond Supplier this year of the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) — we're even more proud of the teams we sponsor. Their hard work is an inspiration to us all, and it's an honor to share with you their story.

This week, we'd like to feature Northern California FIRST Senior Mentor Teri Benart. Although she is busy participating in regional competitions, Teri took time out to meet with us for a Q&A session. Have questions for her? Leave 'em in our comments section!

Question: Almost anyone involved in FIRST has the opportunity to be a mentor. Sometimes it’s mentors guiding students, students helping students, and students advising mentors—do you have words of wisdom to share with teams who have just joined FIRST this season?

Answer: My advice to students would be to leverage the veteran teams to help you through the FIRST build season. It’s always a challenge to learn how to get this done. Secondly, utilize all of your resources, including the FIRST website, and the Non-Engineering Mentor Organization (NEMO) website as well. Chief Delphi is also a great website, and that is a blogging area where teams discuss their designs and challenges. Chief Delphi is a great site for teams to connect with other teams.

Question: We recognize that FIRST is not just about kids building a robot. What else does this competition mean for you as a mentor? What else does this competition mean for the kids?

Answer: It keeps me open-minded as a mentor and informed as to what kids are thinking these days. I get a lot of satisfaction out of watching kids get it, and when I say “get it”, I mean watching kids be part of a team; it’s just amazing to me.

I have a firsthand experience with my son who is going into mechanical engineering. He is a freshman at the University of Nevada in Reno. One of his closest friends is at University of California Santa Barbara studying mechanical engineering also. I think what’s most interesting is that all the friends he hung out with on his FIRST Robotics team are all studying engineering at different schools—all five of them. My son did FIRST Robotics for all four years.

What happened was that he and one friend (who is now studying engineering at Cal Poly) grabbed their other friends after doing FIRST their freshman year, and maintained a consistent group throughout their sophomore, junior, and senior years as FIRST participants. It was a great experience for me as mom because I was a mentor for the team up until this year.

In the 2009 game, my son asked me to go with him to the kick-off and from that moment on I was hooked. I also am the chairperson for the UC Davis Regional in addition to being the Northern California Senior Mentor. I’m working on doing Junior FLL with my grandson, who is 8 years old. I was just visiting him this weekend, and we were building a Lego robot. I love watching kids get excited about the process of creation.

Also, I've noticed that there are a lot of girls I know who never would've done what they’re doing without going into this program. How many girls grow up dreaming of using power tools? After getting into this activity, many girls end up realizing that they actually enjoy it. It (FIRST) helps them to apply knowledge.

For example, my son up at college needed to build a hovercraft, my son was able to recommend the appropriate material with which to build the hovercraft.

Question: As a FIRST mentor, what have you learned about yourself, particularly in regards to your strengths and weaknesses? (This could be particular technical skills, knowledge, or personal skills).

Answer: What I've learned about my strengths is that I am really a strong planner. I really keep the kids on track from a planning perspective, whether we are talking about financial planning, project planning, or meeting deadlines.

What the kids have taught me the most is to keep an open mind and that anything is possible. They've shown me over and over again that the things I think won’t work will work.

Question: Which aspect(s) of the FIRST Robotics Competition are you most excited about?

Answer: The Chairman’s Awards because it talks about sustainability, longevity, and business continuity for the team. It tells me that these kids are thinking about something other than building a robot.

Question: What is your favorite aspect of being a mentor?

Answer: Probably dancing with the kids and having fun. Watching them be happy and continually grow. I love getting up and dancing with them at Regionals and wearing silly things.

Question: What advice do you have to give to future or other FIRST mentors?

Don’t underestimate the power of the kids because those kids are amazing. They really know how to inspire me. I think they inspire me more than I inspire them.

Question: What do you think the future of FIRST is, and of STEM in general?

Answer: I think that the future of FIRST is a decentralized model where the corporate. FRC will become more like FTC and FLL. FIRST is getting so big.

Regarding STEM in general, I think that there is so much attention on STEM that I think that more and more kids will go into STEM. I think that project-based learning— which is what FIRST teaches— is more of what the public sector will begin to lean towards and evolve into. I don’t think we can continue to pound our kids with information and expect them to learn without any experiential process. My hope is that STEM influences project-based learning in public schools.

Question: Is there anything else about FIRST that you’d like to share?

I think that it’s a great organization. I know they’d like to see it move faster than it has been but let’s think about it—it’s been 22 years and this program is exploding. I think that in the short duration it’s been around that there has been phenomenal growth.