Helping to build the next generation of engineers with FIRST® and LEGO® League

Members of the volunteer team and judges for First and Lego League stand together wearing costume hats
Pictured are, left to right, Brandon Newendorp (computer eng alum), Pat Barnes (electrical eng alum; Global Youth Programs Director, John Deere), Loren Zachary (retired professor and former assistant dean for the College of Engineering), Camille Schroeder

Tomorrow’s technology challenges will be solved by today’s kids. Iowa State University College of Engineering is playing an active role in promoting STEM programs for youth from grades K-12.  

Iowa State Engineering Kids (ISEK) initiatives are facilitating formative opportunities for the next generation of STEM professionals. Camille Sloan Schroeder, programs manager for Engineering Community Outreach, helps to oversee the activities put forth by the college.  

In a collaborative approach between FIRST® (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) and LEGO®, the FIRST® LEGO® League (FLL) and FIRST® LEGO® League Jr. programs are aimed at involving kids aged 9-14 and 6-10, respectively.  

In addition to the FLL programs, the FIRST® Tech Challenge and FIRST® Robotics Competition charge junior high and high school students with designing, building and operating robots with mentors in a team environment. ISEK has garnered the support of over 1,000 volunteers and mentors. 

From competitor to volunteer  

Christian Gage, a sophomore in industrial technology, manufacturing option, currently serves as head referee for the state of Iowa’s FLL planning team. He is in charge of training referees for the FLL competitions and oversight for putting together the Lego build kits.  

“The kids are so energetic and ready for fun, and as a volunteer you get to make that happen,” Gage said.  

Gage’s involvement in FLL began when he was in sixth grade where he participated in competitions through his eighth-grade year. He continued to progress through FIRST®’s hierarchy of programs by joining the FIRST® Robotics Competition in high school, remaining active in the program through his senior year.  

After coming to Iowa State, Gage applied to become a referee for the Iowa State FLL Championships. Upon completing his first year of volunteering, he was recommended to be a part of FLL’s planning team.  

“The people are my favorite thing about FIRST,” Gage said. “I love the people who volunteer for FIRST events. They are some of the most energetic and strong-willed people I have ever met, and many of them are role models in my life.” 

Striving for continued support 

Now entering its 18th season, Schroeder and ISEK hope to elicit the support of additional mentors and volunteers like Gage as the programs continue to grow. This year’s competition launched on Aug. 1 and is centered around the theme of civil, construction and environmental engineering.  

“The impacts of participating in FIRST® LEGO® League are many,” Schroeder said. “Youth who have participated gain many skills they can take beyond departing high school.” 

Citing career placement research, Schroeder says 54 percent of FIRST alumni major in engineering and an additional 32 percent major in computer science or software engineering and programming.  

“While youth are learning many skills we need for a talented future workforce, they are also having a fun time in a sports for the mind atmosphere celebrating their achievements in learning and STEM,” Schroeder said.  

Volunteering for FIRST® and LEGO® League programs can take many forms, from dedicating time to helping out at events to supporting teams through funding, donations or tours.  

While spreading the word about the program, prospective volunteers could serve as a mentor for a team or provide short presentations on their professional experience as part of the “Meet the Experts” series.  

Interested in getting involved? Email Schroeder at camilles@iastate.edu or call her at 515-294-4293.