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FIRST Global Promotes STEM Education

FIRST Global President Joe Sestak helped create one of the world’s biggest robotics competitions.

FIRST Global President Joe Sestak

In July, the 2017 FIRST Global Challenge brought together high school students from 157 countries, including China, Nigeria and Iran, to compete not in sports, but robotics. The contest is the idea of Segway inventor, entrepreneur and 2017 CT Hall of Fame inductee Dean Kamen, who has also founded other robotic contests but wanted to create the first truly global high school robotics competition.

For Joe Sestak, the competition’s president, FIRST ;Global represents the unprecedented power of STEM education. This GLOBAL challenge set out to not only spark interest in STEM among youth, but also spread that flame across the world. 

“STEM education can truly bring about a better future for the individuals but also [bring] the world together,” says Sestak, who once served as a congressman in Philadelphia. “That’s why I jumped at the opportunity. The global access, the convening nature of it, and the absence of that in the world today.”

Sestak and his team worked for months before the show recruiting teams from every country possible, no matter how small, undeveloped or unfamiliar it was with robotics. Once they gathered in Washington D.C., each country was ready to participate in the contest, which required each team to use the robot they built to move and organize different colored balls. The challenge shows how robots can help store purified water and separate it from contaminated water.

i3 caught up with Sestak to look back on the competition, STEM education, and the future our children will lead. Based on what he saw at the contest, he believes we’ll are in good hands.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been slightly edited for length and clarity.

Why did you decide to join FIRST Global?

[FIRST Global Founder] Dean Kamen had the vision for FIRST Global and called me one day and asked if I would like to help start the first international robotics Olympics for high school youth. And honestly, I told Dean I wasn’t really a robot guy. But he said to think about it. I realized it was something I really wanted to do. The greatest power of America is the power to convene. To bring nations together — to find out we have more similarities than we do differences and perhaps learn to work together to face common challenges. And so I took this opportunity to do primarily that. 

What was the competition like?

Each team from a different country created their own robot to compete

In the end, 157 different nations came. We had 163 teams total because we had six continental teams. That first night was remarkable — the kids walked into the hall, led by the Muslim all-girls team from Afghanistan, and then stretching all the way to Zimbabwe team. And as they officially opened up under Dean’s opening statement, the lights went down and they lit their penlights. Nothing but proud, individual countries all around the globe. The next two days were more about the contest — finding how engineering prowess and understanding education can really help solve common problems. And that’s what you saw. The robots were there to address the issue of access to clean water. Everyone from Flint Michigan to South Sudan has that challenge.

Another reason I jumped at this opportunity is because the task permitted me to go where STEM is not. Our mission was to go where STEM wasn’t very robust. Our job was to inspire through robotics and show the power of STEM education not only for the individual, but also the government. Take Mali, which has already received a grant from the government for next year. At least 12 so far have received additional resources to expand their efforts. 

How did you manage to recruit so many nations?

It was hard and took a lot of time! My calls were done from 2 AM in the morning until 10 PM at night thanks to our group’s many contacts. I was on the phone with an African church in Philadelphia, for example, who reached out to countries in the Caribbean where they do missionary work. I also was on the phone with another businessman who contacts from Panama and Morocco. I made contacts through my wife, [who works in Africa]. She started reaching out to African nations and introduced me to workers over there. Then she led me to women-focused organizations and programs. 

Sixty percent of our teams were actually brought to America by a team that was led, organized or founded by a woman — an unprecedented number. It was very grassroots. We had some women from the Bangladeshi community that I met when I was a congressman. I went to them in my district in Pennsylvania and said, “Do you know someone from Bangladesh who might be interested in bringing the youth here to learn about robotics?” And they said one of their sons, who had a company in Bangladesh, could reach out to train people and youth in STEM education and coding. It was unbelievable how far these connections went. 

What was the stand-out moment?

It was when the teams cheered. Every single team in attendance cheered during the opening ceremony as they walked in, and when the winners were announced at the end. I mean loudly — with enthusiasm! Those were the moments I knew that they were proud of what they had done and they had learned lessons — working together was better than being divided. 

What was one of the teams that inspired you the most?

Liberian high schoolers building their robot for FIRST Global

Every team had their beautiful personality. Liberia was one example. With three weeks to go, the Liberian team was having a hard time getting their robot ready. They had never touched a robot before and had little electricity. My technical director from our staff got on the phone and walked them through how to build the robot. In the wee hours of the night, 2 or 3 AM, they sent a photograph of them holding a flashlight showing the beginnings of the framework of the robots. You could see the torrential rain, dripping through the corroded tin roof that was over them. It was a very poor area. But the next night, they sent another picture showing that the robot could grab a bar and pull itself up, which was one of the ways to get extra points. The third night, they sent one more picture — they must have worked 72 straight hours — showing how the robot could scoop up balls. My technical director walked out, showed me the picture, and I was so proud. They inspired us. 

Each individual team was unique. I could talk about Bangladesh, Pakistan or the Syrian refugee team. Everyone was unique and full of enthusiasm. 

As STEM education becomes more essential, how can we get more technology in U.S. schools?

We need legislation to invest more in well-trained STEM teachers, and I believe there needs to be a public/private partnership. Corporations and businesses have an intense interest in getting STEM qualified youth. So many jobs are going to be needed to be filled, so they have a responsibility to try to help resources flow in and support the teachers. There are two primary ways to support this: the teacher, and ways to make STEM fun and interesting to kids. Instead of just offering a basketball game after school, they could go to robotics club or something else that is fun and interesting having to do with STEM. So you are not just getting off on Friday to go to a football rally, but you are going to a robot event. It has to be fun, enticing and on par with any sport.

What strategy should we take to convince Congress about the importance of STEM? 

The way to do it is expose them to the normality of it. Education is our homeland defense – we must be able to take them out and show them what STEM education can create. We invited every congress member and senator to [FIRST Global]. A couple did show, but it would have been great to have more. Why? Because they would have seen the value of what we’re proposing for the future.

Jeremy Snow