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Reflections from a FIRST® Robotics Team Mentor

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Recently, more than 18,000 students from around the world traveled to St. Louis to participate in the annual FIRST® (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Championship. All four FIRST programs support STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education through immersing students in real-world engineering experiences. At the most advanced level of the competition is the FIRST Robotics Championship (FRC®) for Grades 9 through 12; guided by professional mentors, students develop game-playing robots that compete against one another in various challenges.

Over the years, Monsanto has continued to sponsor FIRST-participating teams, with our employees regularly stepping up to assist and mentor students. Craig, who works as a building engineer at Monsanto, has mentored FRC Team 4256 – Cyborg Cats of Westminster Christian Academy for the past four years. Below, he reflects upon his experience:


5.28.15 CHONG_FIRST_Robotics-2015_Social_v1_PMCraig supervises as Jack, freshman and Cyborg Cats pit crew member, modifies a metal rod to be fitted onto the team’s robot.

Q: What are your duties as a team mentor?

A: I help mentor the students during the “build season” – first and foremost, I teach them how to choose the right tools for each job and how to use those tools safely. One of my most important duties as a mentor is to cultivate an environment that helps build self-confidence and fosters teamwork and respect. It’s great to look back on the past four years and see how much the students have grown and matured.

Other values I try to instill during the process:

  • Resilience: When things don’t go well as a result of a failed design, it’s all right because there’s something to learn from every experience.
  • Self-confidence: I show them that their views and ideas have value. There is nothing better than to see a student come up with an idea, then make it a reality.
  • Setting realistic expectations: The event organizers do a great job of setting reasonable limits for, and thus expectations of, student competitors; these boundaries have taught our team the value of reciprocity, fairness, equality, self-discipline and mutual respect.
  • Gracious professionalism and self-sacrifice: These are my goals as a mentor. I believe I can make a difference in the future of our children and help prepare them for the next level of their journey, whether it’s becoming an engineer, mathematician, scientist, or technician.

Q: How do you think the team performed this year?

A: This was a very challenging year. In response to the complexity of the game, the team put a lot of effort into developing a matrix to evaluate and compare their design options. Designing and prototyping their ideas on AutoCAD® software honed students’ skills in critical analysis. It was a great learning tool and had, I believe, the biggest impact on our performance this year.

Cyborg Cats members share their thoughts on the value of a STEM education and the impact the robotics program has had on their lives.

Q: In what ways has the robotics program had a positive impact on the students’ lives?

A: The students have been able to take the skills they developed in the program and apply them to other parts of their lives, including their university studies and activities.  We have alumni who, in their freshman year at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, have taken on leadership roles in the school’s prestigious Solar Car and Mars Rover Design teams.

Additionally, my son Luke, who previously participated in the FRC as our team’s facilities and safety engineer, has since gone on to Missouri State University, where he studies plant science and ultimately hopes to become an entomologist. This year, he formed a beekeeping club on the MSU campus and caught his first swarm of bees. He’s just one example of the many who have benefitted greatly from applying leadership skills developed through the robotics program.

Q: Why is it important to foster an interest in STEM early on?

A: Early exposure creates that vital spark of interest at a young age, and provides the opportunity for a head start in exploring various science fields. This creates a safe, no-pressure space for kids to develop their talents and hone their skills.

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