Interview with FIRST Team 7038, The Pizza Pi’s – Finding your Passion in a Pandemic

FIRST Robotics Competition Robot

Exposing students to the possibilities of engineering is essential in creating a pipeline of STEM talent that can support the rapid pace of innovation. Students at Totino-Grace High School in Fridley, Minnesota can learn engineering skills through hands-on experiences as part of the FIRST Robotics team named The Pizza Pi’s. Best of all, it’s helping them pave a path to their future careers.

FIRST Robotics

Founded in 1989, FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics combines the excitement of sport with the rigors of science and technology. As one of the largest STEM programs in the world, its mission is to inspire young people to engage in STEM through mentor-based experiential learning programs. FIRST teams meet throughout the year to work on engineering a robot. At the end of the season, each team brings their robot to competition where they are asked to complete a series of tasks.

Although the pandemic has moved the Pizza Pi’s online, that hasn’t stopped the team from finding ways to continue learning and be creative. Students are coached by science teacher, Adam Wolfe and mentored by Brian Gosch, a senior Siemens software engineer, along with nine other team mentors.  The team meets virtually twice a week to work on building their skills and getting familiar with new applications.

Siemens Support

Team mentor Brian Gosch said of his experience with the team, “Getting involved with FIRST has been an engaging and rewarding experience.   The FIRST Robotics program is developing the future generations of engineers that will become the future innovators and the technology workforce.   These programs get students excited and involved with STEM oriented careers, and different aspects such as software development, design, construction, CAD, and organization related skills.”

As an added benefit of working with a Siemens engineer, the Pizza Pi’s had the opportunity to apply for a grant from Siemens. Last season, they used the funding to attend an extra robotics competition in Duluth, Minnesota. Their robot named ‘Chef’ was extremely successful and went 8-7-0 during the competition.  The team was chosen for playoffs for the first time and planned to attend an additional competition at the University of Minnesota. Unfortunately, the 2020 season was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the team was unable to attend the regional competition.

The Pizza Pi’s 2020 robot, aptly named ‘Chef.’

Making Innovation Virtual

Now, in a new school year and competition season, the team has a new crop of talent and is starting from the drawing board. With more competition experience under their belt they can utilize the online format as a time to build and learn before they bring another robot to competition.

During their recent virtual weekly meetings, the Pizza Pi’s break off into a series of groups to work on different aspects of the robot and run scenarios using different software applications. The team has spent time training new members, iterating and improving their current robot, and learning how to implement new concepts into their design. Examples include pneumatics, a new drive system, custom chassi, and vision tracking for their camera. They also plan to dive into learning the ins and outs of software like Siemens Solid Edge.

Building Career Skills

Lily, a senior on the Pizza Pi’s has been on the team since freshman year and has taken up a leadership role as she closes in on her time in high school. After taking a CAD class and learning about the group through a school-wide lecture series, Lily joined thinking the opportunity sounded interesting.  “This has helped solidify what I want to do, FIRST has shown me that this is something I’m good at and will enjoy.” In the future she hopes to work in aerospace engineering with aspirations to work for NASA. Getting the competition experience last season has helped her serve as a leader for the younger students on the team and get excited for the possibilities for their next robot.

Sam, a sophomore on the team, aspires to become a doctor. Being part of FIRST has allowed him to look at problems from different perspectives with the support of a team of peers. He said, “[FIRST] has personally helped me find ways to think about things from different angles and think critically about problems.’

Of the lasting impact of the program on students Gosch said, “The FIRST process exposes the students to a more “real life” experience than they’d get in a typical classroom setting.   Time management, problem solving, and cost and benefit tradeoffs are all part of the competition. It’s rewarding to see the students “get-it” and accomplish the team goals.”

With an uncertain competition future due to the pandemic, the team is working on building smaller robots and accomplishing tasks like climbing and having their robots throw and retrieve objects. “The value [of FIRST] is making mistakes and being okay with it and learning from them” said Adam Wolfe, the team coach.  Even amidst a global pandemic, the students of the Totino-Grace Pizza Pi’s can find what they are passionate about in an educational environment, and it is undoubtedly helping foster the next generation of STEM talent.

To learn more about how Siemens helps foster the next generation of digital talent, check out our Academic Partner Program.

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