What does a program that teaches students to think like engineers do when a pandemic shuts them down? It pivots.
The coronavirus has canceled school programs around the world, including FIRST, where high school students build robots to compete against other teams. Since the students can’t be together as teams making robots, they’re doing other activities, said FIRST North Carolina President Marie Hopper. Some students are using 3D printers to make face shields and others have donated robot motors to companies modifying ventilators.
FIRST is a worldwide STEM-based organization that uses Legos and robots to teach children in kindergarten through high school to develop thinking skills.
The North Carolina nonprofit is one of more than 30 organizations in the state that received $810,000 in grants from Duke Energy to support STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) and experiential learning. The company has donated $2.4 million to support nonprofits in its seven-state service area during the coronavirus outbreak. If they need to, the nonprofits can use the money to keep their operations going. About two-thirds of North Carolina nonprofits responding to a survey said the pandemic could affect the sustainability of their organization.
“The nonprofit community is essential to the well-being and success of our state,” said Stephen De May, Duke Energy North Carolina president. “We … want them to have some measure of flexibility during this time of uncertainty.”
The Duke Energy grant to FIRST was a much-needed safety net. “It was,” Hopper said, “just breathtakingly wonderful.”
This pandemic, she said, shows the value of FIRST. “We have to have citizens who understand and relate to data. That they’re able to sift through all the noise out there and think like an engineer, think like a scientist and say, ‘Is this data based on a solid premise? Is it backed by fact?’ This pandemic has shown us how important that kind of engineering mind, a scientist mind is critical for us to make decisions.”
People with STEM educations will develop the solutions. “They’re going to figure out a way to cure this thing, come up with a vaccine. The engineers are going to come up with the ways we are going to deliver the vaccine.”
The program, Hopper said, creates interest in STEM among girls and minority students and gives access to the topics to rural students in the state, the second-largest rural student population in the country, behind Texas.
FIRST operates in 67 of North Carolina’s 100 counties and was able to hold only two of six high school events this year.
About 75% of the program’s alumni choose STEM fields, Hopper said, and other alumni retain what they’ve learned. In addition to teaching business and engineering skills, she said, the program teaches aesthetics. Are the robots they build fun to look at?
“We’re teaching them how to think logically and like an engineer. We’re teaching them how to work on a team,” Hopper said. “How to recognize that 10 heads together are better than any one head, how do you work through difference of opinions, how do you have respect and stay true to whatever your mission is and have integrity in what it is you choose to do.”
When the next school year starts, large group competitions may be limited, but Hopper said that won’t stop FIRST from preparing the students for the world and jobs of the future.
How Duke Energy and Piedmont Natural Gas are helping
During the pandemic, Duke Energy is waiving fees and will not disconnect power to those who have not paid their bills. The company will continue to read meters and send bills. For more on how the company is supporting its customers, employees and communities:dukeenergyupdates.com. Here is a sampling of how Duke Energy is helping community organizations across its service territories:
Florida: Assistance for utility and housing costs.
Kentucky and Ohio: Working to keep senior citizens safe.
South Carolina: Upstate food bank gets a boost.
Tennessee: Hospitality workers receive groceries, pay from new program.