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The Robot Wizards

A Raytheon mentor and his student team tackle the FIRST Robotics Competition

Before a FIRST Robotics playoff round, Raytheon engineer Shane Palmerino double checks the Hope Chapel Academy team's robot after they rebuilt and reinstalled the gear box.

Raytheon engineer Shane Palmerino has always been a devoted tinkerer.

As a kid, he would take apart his toys (and, he admits, other things around the house) to see how they worked. But it wasn’t until his mother heard about the FIRST Robotics Competition, the international contest for high school students and their mentors, that he got the extra push that led to his engineering career.

That was in 2005, when Palmerino was in his first year at Hope Chapel Academy in southern California. He was a reluctant recruit.

“As a freshman, I was hesitant to try new things, and I definitely wasn’t too keen on the idea initially,” he said.

Yet once convinced, Palmerino was all in. His team went on to win the world championship that year, and he’s been involved with the program ever since; first as a student competitor, then as mentor to his former high school’s team, a commitment that continued even after he joined Raytheon as an engineer in 2013.

This year, Palmerino and the Hope Chapel Academy team built a robot that competed in a game, piling up stackable bins and placing recycling containers on the stacks. In March, they took top honors in the FIRST Robotics Los Angeles Regional competition finals in Long Beach. Now they’re preparing for the international competition on April 22-25 in St. Louis, Missouri.

Hope Chapel Academy students Zac Couch (left) and Michael David (right), with former team member Elijah Mounts (center), perform maintenance on their robot right before the playoffs.

For more than ten years Raytheon, has sponsored the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition, in which student teams compete to see which ones can build the best robot for specific purposes, such as functioning underwater or turning the pages of a book for disabled readers.

FIRST is part of a broader MathMovesU initiative, which helps inspire students to pursue expertise in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM. Efforts include MathAlive!, a traveling, interactive exhibition that has been shown around the world; the MATHCOUNTS math bee; and Engineering is Elementary, which develops engineering curricula for elementary school teachers.

The idea is to familiarize young people with the challenge and thrill of engineering. “A program like FIRST gives you hands-on experience building robots and solving problems, working side-by-side with engineers,” said Ric Roberts, a chief engineer at Raytheon SAS and chairman of the FIRST Los Angeles Regional Organizing Committee. “It’s that hands-on experience that really enhances the study of science and technology.”

For mentors, the competition is an opportunity to demystify STEM and illuminate career possibilities the students may never have considered.

“Our mentors are patient and creative in their teaching methods, and we get plenty of one-on-one attention,” said Autumn Mikami, a sophomore on Palmerino’s team. “I’m dyslexic and always had a hard time with numbers. Working with Shane as our team lead has helped me consider a career in programming.”

The robot challenge changes every year. Each team – many with Raytheon mentors – has six weeks to learn the competition game and build a robot that can play.

Palmerino said he’s thrilled to be headed to the finals in St. Louis, but the opportunity to serve as inspiration to a younger generation is even more gratifying. “Giving back what I gained through this program,” he says, “is a great feeling.”

Last Updated: 04/26/2016

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