ECBC mentor helps Cecil students tackle FIRST Tech Challenge

Since 1917, scientists and engineers at the U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center have extended their talents and expertise in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) beyond the defense against chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosives threats. They have mentored students in their surrounding community in an effort to inspire, develop and attract a highly-skilled STEM workforce that is prepared to find solutions to complex problems and to tackle the challenges of the future.

Daniel O'Neill, a young mechanical engineer who has only worked at the Center for the past two and a half years, already started to pay it forward to 14 students at Bohemia High School in Cecil County.

"I first attended an info session held by the Center's community and educational outreach program manager Mary Doak where she described all the programs she's in charge of, then briefed opportunities that were available and asked us about our area of interests," O'Neill said.

"After I filled out a survey, Mary contacted me to see if I was interested in working with local high school students as part of the FIRST [For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology] Tech Challenge," he continued. "I thought it sounded pretty neat and went for it."

The FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) is a competition that allows students to design, build and program robots, to apply real-world math and science concepts while developing problem-solving, organizational and team-building skills. Participating teams have the opportunity to compete in tournaments, earn a place in the World Championship and to vie for $16 million in college scholarships.

Referring to his skills in micro-electronics and experience in basic programming from college, O'Neill was poised to mentor Cecil County's students, who, as a class, coined their FTC team "Baybillies" and their robot project "Robot de Niro."

"While class instructor Andy Borzok was their primary coach, I served as back-up for him," O'Neill explains. "I was there to share advice and guidance when students were stuck on a problem and to give them an idea of engineering in the real world."

"When team members, for example, became discouraged that one of their ideas didn't work, I reassured them that this happens in the workplace all the time, that it was part of the engineering process and that you could never expect your first idea to work perfectly the first time."

If the team was in doubt about a technical approach or the programming code, O'Neill regularly corresponded with Borzok to address the issue and exchange suggestions.

"I was impressed with the team's overall enthusiasm and their eagerness to learn," he stated. "In terms of technical abilities, I was amazed how quickly they picked up the C programming, quicker than some of the kids in college classes."

"It is rewarding to see their excitement about science and engineering and that I had some impact on their interest to move into STEM fields," he concludes. "Mentoring can definitely offer a fresh, new perspective on how younger minds work and what they are capable of."

Three weeks ago, the first of six qualifying FTC tournaments was held in Annapolis, where the "Baybillies" ranked 11th place out of 28 teams. For their ingenuity in the autonomous period of the competition, the team won the Rockwell-Collins Innovate award. In addition, their overall performance helped the team accelerate to the FTC State Championship at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab on Feb. 23. They collectively decided to participate in the next regional event on Feb. 9 at Havre de Grace High School to adequately prepare for the upcoming state championship.

In celebration of National Mentoring Month, ECBC acknowledges all of its employees who have mentored students from kindergarten through college in additional programs, such as Edgewood Middle School's A.M. Academic Club, the Science and Math Academy, Joppatowne High School's Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness Program, local Project Lead the Way Biomedical Sciences and Pre-Engineering Programs, the FreeState ChalleNGe program, the Army's Science and Engineering Apprenticeship Program, the Center's Minority Undergraduate Summer Internship Program and the SMART Scholarship Program.

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