Editor's Note: This is one in a series of articles about Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory employees who volunteer for various nonprofit agencies. Many of these agencies are available for employees to donate through the Helping Others More Effectively (HOME) Campaign.
When given the opportunity to attend a competitive robotics championship event last year, sponsored by FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), Greg Simonson had no idea that experience would lead him to become an ardent supporter, collaborator and volunteer, helping students to get excited about STEM-related education and careers by connecting them with mentors.
“Seeing the enthusiasm of literally thousands of kids in an enormous sports arena cheering on their technical teams was thrilling,” Simonson said. "It was fantastic to see the kids getting as crazy-excited about their technical work as kids would otherwise only at a football pep rally or rock concert.”
One thing is certain -- Simonson has always been passionate about science, as evidenced by his 34-year career at the Laboratory, working as a physicist. So, combining that passion with his love of educating and helping others, Simonson has proved to be an asset to FIRST.
FIRST, a not-for-profit public charity based in Manchester, New Hampshire, was founded in 1989. Its mission is simple: to inspire young people's interest and participation in science and technology. FIRST provides an opportunity for kids worldwide, in kindergarten through high school, to get involved in engineering, programming, science and technology and other skills essential to a successful team. Members learn science and technology, as well as the life skills of teamwork, commitment, hard work, communication, timeliness, finances and more.
“One of their catchphrases is 'It’s more than robots!' and that’s enormously important,” Simonson said. “FIRST is contributing heavily to the development of the next generation’s leaders in STEM fields.”
Simonson recently coordinated and hosted a robotics demonstration at the Laboratory that included students from: GravitechX, a Livermore High School team; RoboAvatars, a Fremont-based community team; and System Overload Robotics, a Livermore-based community team.
Anya Worley, a junior at Squaw Valley Academy in Livermore, has been involved with FIRST for two years and was one of the students leading the demonstrations at the Laboratory and recruiting volunteers. “What I like most about being part of FIRST is the community and the team that I am a part of, the System Overload Robotics,” Worley said. “We’ve gone through some challenging times as a team, but we have stayed together and persevered. I’ve learned a lot about STEM and have found many lifelong friends through my team.”
Although Simonson is a newcomer to FIRST, having just gotten involved this past summer, he has been a volunteer for other STEM-based programs for kids for more than a decade. He has served as a volunteer and member of the board of directors of the National Maritime Heritage Foundation, another STEM-based nonprofit, based in Washington, D.C., that serves disadvantaged kids in the greater area.
“My role with FIRST has been to raise awareness at LLNL and through outreach of the excellent work that FIRST does locally, nationally and internationally,” Simonson said. “There are many thousands of FIRST teams in the U.S. and in 84 countries around the world. Lab personnel and others working in science and technology industries are ideally prepared to help these young scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, project managers, spokespersons, etc., so I’m spreading the word and recruiting others to help in a variety of ways.”
Lab employees who volunteer along with Simonson, include Vic Castillo, a longtime mentor for a number of local teams and LLNL’s Joshua Flygare, a new mentor, supporting Livermore High School’s GravitechX team. “Vic helped me tremendously and was a great resource for helping me to get involved in FIRST,” Simonson said. “Joshua jumped in with both feet and is doing a fantastic job. The kids just love him.”
Simonson is looking to enlist additional volunteers as technical and non-technical mentors for these local robotics teams. “There is no greater feeling than to share your knowledge with a student eager to learn,” Simonson said. “If I can impact just one student and inspire them to explore a STEM career, then that equals success. It is very rewarding.”
“My mentors have taught me the meaning of teamwork and some of the basics of the robot, such as motors and how they function,” said Shrish Choudhary, a seventh-grade student at William Hopkins Junior High. Choudhary has been a member of the Fremont based team, RoboAvatars, for more than five years and has participated in approximately 10 competitions so far. “This experience has been fun and engaging and has been a really good opportunity,” he said. "My school teaches a little about robotics, but it’s not as interactive or as fun as FIRST."
For more information on what FIRST does and how to get involved, visit the FIRST website.