We caught up with Kate Sample and Cam Hallett, mentors with FIRST® Robotics Competition team 3653, the Botcats, of Pembroke Pines, Florida, to learn more about how the FIRST® Mentor Network helped them build a connection that is a win-win for teams and volunteers. Here’s their story!
How did you get involved with FIRST®?
Kate: When I was five years old, the local high school in my hometown started a FIRST Robotics Competition team, Team 1108, Panther Robotics. They were well known within our small town and created countless opportunities for younger students to get involved in STEM, from RCX robot camps to starting a FIRST® LEGO ® League team. My father is an electrical engineer, and we would regularly stop by the build space to check things out. After that, I was hooked! I went on to join the team in high school, working as a member of the business department and on the robot’s electronics. Since my sophomore year in high school in 2013, I have been mentoring teams and volunteering at FIRST events in all programs.
Cam: My initial experience with FIRST was in elementary school when my mom decided to run a team out of our basement. I was probably six years old, and I vividly remember sitting around a table discussing different medical conditions and how technology could help improve quality of life for people. It was my first time going through the engineering process and my first time programming, working to create a functional LEGO leg. That year, we went to an expo run by the FIRST Robotics Competition team I would become a member of a decade later, Team 1073. From that moment on, I was absolutely obsessed with robots and continued to participate in FIRST LEGO League for a few years. Once I reached middle school, there was no FIRST team, so I worked with several amazing people to start a FIRST ® Tech Challenge team, Team 10660. I returned the following year to mentor 10660 along with a second team, Team 11866. From there, I worked to start and mentor multiple FIRST LEGO League teams. My FIRST experience was off and running!
What do you think is the most rewarding part of being a volunteer with FIRST?
Kate: I do not think there is just one answer to this! I think the best part of volunteering with FIRST is the connections. I have friends all over the world who are essentially like my family. To work with others towards the common goal of providing exciting STEM experiences for youth, there is no greater joy. Getting to see the students who I know will go on to change the world and are interested in everything under the sun, keeps me continually passionate about giving back.
Cam: As Kate said, there are so many answers to this question. I personally love the “Aha!” moments that come when a student accomplishes something they previously believed was beyond them. Seeing the joy when a student finally understands something new and embraces that and is proud of it is absolutely the best feeling in the world. Knowing that you are watching and, in some small way, shaping the future leaders of the world is an immensely rewarding experience. When those students also choose to volunteer and give back, the feeling of accomplishment is indescribable. FIRST provides so many meaningful ways to make connections with other volunteers, mentors, and individuals interested in pursuing the common goal of collectively creating a better future, which makes the networking component a rewarding experience as well.
Have you volunteered for a remote event? What was it like to volunteer remotely?
Kate: Despite every new challenge COVID has brought, my favorite is the remote events. While I have not been able to volunteer at one myself this season, I have been in on the planning stages and seen the behind-the-scenes work that goes into it by all parties. The students are still excited, the volunteers are still engaged, and the experience of celebrating the hard work of each team is what it remains about.
Cam: I have absolutely loved being involved in remote events this past year. Being from New Hampshire, attending school in Miami remotely, and working with my network of close FIRST friends, I have had the opportunity to reach students globally. I had the incredible opportunity to judge a FIRST LEGO League event in Australia and be a Head Referee for an event in California - opportunities I never would have had in a different year. It also gave me the opportunity to become involved with 24hoursofstem.org as a member of their Organizing Committee, working to bring virtual STEM opportunities to students around the world as part of a multinational team from the USA, Australia, Taiwan, the Netherlands, and Canada. While volunteering remotely is certainly different, it has provided the opportunity to broaden my reach and impact as a volunteer. I think Kate said it well when she said, “The students are still excited, the volunteers are still engaged,” and so working with them is just as rewarding.
Tell us how you connected via the new FIRST Mentor Network and what that has meant for you.
Kate: The FIRST Mentor Network is the link that has been missing for so long! When I moved to Florida from Kansas in 2018, finding a team to mentor was a challenge. I was lucky enough to find an incredible team that I now coach, FIRST Robotics Competition Team 3653, the Botcats, through a social media search and a well-monitored email! As the Botcats have grown over the past three years, tripling in size and growing our student interest, our team was in need of more mentors. When the FIRST Mentor Network was released in early August, I jumped at the chance to post on behalf of our team. Within three weeks, I had seven responses from people within the FIRST community who were willing to help our team! One of those incredible connections was with Cam. Since joining us in August, Cam has been an outstanding addition. He works regularly with our students on furthering their skills in programming, design, CAD, public speaking, scholarship and resume building, content development, and more. Without the additional support he has been able to provide, our team would not be growing at the rate it is. And the best part is that he provides all this remotely from his home in New Hampshire! I recommend all teams and any individual interested in mentoring check out the FIRST Mentor Network!
Cam: I am incredibly grateful for the FIRST Mentor Network. It is an outstanding resource and is the reason I found the Botcats. After graduating and looking to go to school in Miami, Florida, I still wanted to be involved in FIRST. I wasn’t sure how I was going to do that, with a complete change in location and almost no FIRST connections in the area. When I heard about the FIRST Mentor Network, I was interested to see if a team near Miami might be looking for a mentor. I signed up, filled in my credentials, and searched near Miami. The Botcats were the first team to show up, so I reached out to their lead mentor (Kate) and asked what they were looking for and what areas they needed help with. I am a firm believer in a student-first approach to teams, and I also wanted to be sure the students were the ones running the team and not the mentors. When Kate told me that I might be able to mentor, but I would need to pass an interview by the student leadership first, I knew this was going to be the team for me. That was eight months ago, and I cannot begin to tell you how lucky I was to find them. To any team looking for a mentor or facing a problem, go on the FIRST Mentor Network and spend 10 minutes to post. It can be the first step to finding the resources you need to solve any problem on your team. To mentors thinking about signing up, please do. I promise you will not regret it!
During this global crisis, how are you supporting teams or the FIRST community?
Kate: Utilizing the FIRST Mentor Network, I have been responding to requests from other teams asking me to review documentation surrounding structure and awards. This has been such a great way to learn and connect with others in FIRST through virtual platforms. I have also signed up to volunteer with various FIRST events across the USA later this month. The team I mentor is still actively meeting! Since the summer, we have had weekly virtual meetings to train new students and work on specific tasks. Now that we are in the build season, we meet five days a week for various projects (a combination of virtual and safely in-person). The Botcats are continuing their outreach efforts as well! We developed the Botcats STEM Kit initiative, where we developed four to six hands-on STEM activities, developed written and video instructions, and packed them in small kits to send home with youth in our community. This way, they have access to them while at home! We also looked for new ways to connect with our community virtually and determine what the needs are and how to best meet them. Sometimes all it takes is a little bit of social interaction with others. Just last month we met with our good friends, FIRST Robotics Competition Team 108, the SigmaC@ts, to talk about how the season is progressing and what challenges and successes we have had.
Cam: Working remotely with the Botcats has been absolutely incredible. As I said above, I’ve had the amazing opportunity to support these students in developing new skills. Volunteering virtually at a variety of FIRST events this year has allowed me to be “on call” when there are events short a volunteer. The opportunity to be involved in 24hoursofstem.org, as well as several other projects, has allowed me to work closely with many members of the FIRST community. I have certainly taken full advantage of events moving online to broaden my FIRST network and increase my reach as a volunteer and a mentor. Today, it is possible for me to help at STEM events thousands of miles away without ever getting on a plane, whether that means speaking at a workshop, actively mentoring and volunteering, or simply offering encouragement to people doing incredible things during this pandemic. I’ve seen individuals start businesses, teams, and nonprofits during this time, and supporting those initiatives as best I can, even if it’s just promoting an opportunity on LinkedIn, has been extremely rewarding.
Kate Sample is a FIRST AmeriCorps VISTA Leader completing her master’s degree as a STEM Instruction Specialist at Emporia State University. A proud alum of FIRST Robotics Competition Team 1108, Panther Robotics, from Paola, KS, and current lead mentor for FIRST Robotics Competition Team 3653, the Botcats, of Pembroke Pines, FL, Kate is an eight-year volunteer with all FIRST programs. Her favorite role so far has been as an emcee and game announcer! Follow her on LinkedIn!
Cam Hallett is a full-time student at the University of Miami earning a B.S.M.A.S. in Marine Science and Computer Science with minors in Mathematics and Teaching. He is a FIRST Alum, a 2019 FIRST Dean’s List Award Winner, a volunteer with all FIRST programs, a former FIRST LEGO League and FIRST Tech Challenge mentor, and a current mentor for FIRST Robotics Competition Team 3653, the Botcats, out of Pembroke Pines, FL. Additionally, he is on the Organizing Committee for 24hoursofstem.org and loves to be involved in any and all STEM events! Follow him on LinkedIn!