At the Robotics Education and Competition Foundation (RECF) we are so lucky to have thousands of volunteers who tirelessly devote countless hours to making sure that events run smoothly. One of those individuals is Oscar McCullough, who has served as an Event Partner (EP) for over eight seasons. An alumnus of RECF programs, Oscar can now be found field side calling VEX Robotics Competition (V5RC) matches as an MC or using his decade of robotics experience to engineer the most exciting events possible. We spoke with Oscar about why volunteerism is important, how robotics prepared him for his current career, and why he believes the VEX U program is special.

Tell us a little about yourself.

OSCAR: My name is Oscar McCullough. I'm from Virginia and I've been an EP for eight seasons. I'm also a VEX Robotics Competition alumnus, but I started my involvement with the organization prior to V5RC even being a thing.  I continued to do robotics in high school, and then in college with VEX U. I've been involved ever since. At this point I’ve spent more than half my life involved with VEX Robotics in competitions.

You mentioned that the program was life changing for you. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

OSCAR: So growing up I always knew I loved math and science. I also knew I wanted to be an engineer. I played sports growing up, and was always super competitive with everything. That said, I wasn’t a great athlete. So in eighth grade my school started a robotics team and I was like, “This sounds fun, let's do it”. And there was a moment where things just really clicked for me. I knew what I was doing, and realized “Hey, I could be really good at this”. After that I really took to programming and building robots - that's the reason I picked the high school I went to, because there were only three high schools with a robotics program. 

Oscar serving as an MC at the 2024 Kalahari Classic in Sandusky, Ohio.

That’s incredible. It seems like robotics was a natural fit for you. Did you have any experience with it prior to eighth grade? 

OSCAR: I knew nothing about robots before I started. I knew I liked robots. I knew robotics was something I wanted to get into, but I was at ground zero. I liked math and science and programming and that was it. But I didn't have any other background knowledge or anything. I was a failed eighth grade athlete that knew I wasn't going pro in sports, but I could go pro in math and science. So I went in not knowing anything but just willing to learn so much. That's what I did for robotics.

Really, just being able to find something that I genuinely love and that brought me a sense of satisfaction, sense of growth, and the chance to always learn new things and reach new heights was absolutely mind blowing for me. Robotics changed my whole outlook on how I approach school, how I approach work, and things I want to do. Robotics was transformative for me.

You mentioned transitioning to VEX U once you got to college. Were the additional freedoms that the VEX U provides liberating in any way as someone who always wanted to push themselves in robotics?

Definitely. VEX U has actually changed so much from when I started in 2013 or 2014. I would say, at the time, VEX U had the feeling of being just larger high school V5RC bots, with the addition of being allowed to use 3D printed parts. Eventually we were also allowed to use more sensors and that change actually was really encouraging. When I started VEX a decade ago, I was kind of limited with the programming I could do and sort of the software approaches I could take. I competed in the pre-V5 era. I used PIC processors, then the Cortex right when it came out. I actually used the Cortex for most of my competition career. 

Once I became a mentor, we got V5, and there was just so much freedom in VEX U to really learn and apply new techniques, and try all the different algorithms and math and things that I really loved in my classes. I got to introduce many of those ideas with VEX U. A lot of it was just trying things and being ok with failing at times. That's still a key aspect of VEX U today. So I'm glad I had my VEX U experience. It made me a much better VEX robotics person in both building and programming, and it pushed me to want to give that experience back to everyone.

And now you continue to give back as an Event Partner. What is the most rewarding part about being an EP?

OSCAR: It's having the students come up to me and say, “Hey, you ran a great event” or knowing that some of their best experiences in robotics are the events you run. That's the main reason I became an EP because I had great experiences in robotics and our events didn't have any of the things like events have now, but I just had fun being around robots and I wanted to do everything I could to elevate that feeling for others at my events.

That's why I might volunteer to run the state championship or I'll run as many events as I can in the season, because every event is someone's first or someone's introduction to robotics. I'm driven to make sure that everyone has a positive experience - from the students, to the volunteers, to the spectators, because I want them to understand the magic of this program.

Oscar at Alliance Selection at the 2024 Kalahari Classic in Sandusky, Ohio.

So as an Event Partner, what piece of advice would you give to somebody that wanted to become an EP? 

OSCAR: You never have to go at it alone and you never have to put everything on yourself to succeed. I've found that in my time as an EP that there are so many people willing to help out and willing to contribute in any way they can because they also have that same desire to put on the best event possible. You want to provide a positive experience for the students, and most people understand that goal and understand the mission and vibe with it. 

That's something that I wish I took more note of when I started being an EP because a lot of times you put a lot on yourself because you trust yourself to get everything done. Again, it is a collaborative effort, it's a community effort, and that's really the biggest advice I give any EP - you're not in a silo, you're not alone. You have to rely on your community to really get the best results for yourself and everyone involved in the process.

Speaking of mission based initiatives, as you know workforce development and preparing students for STEM jobs in the future is at the core of RECF programming. Can you just talk a little bit about how your experience prepared you for what you do now in the “real world”?

OSCAR: Absolutely. I'm a software engineer in my day job. Some things, like the coding and building robots…some of those technical skills did apply to my job, but I think the most important thing for me, and really what these programs provide students workforce development-wise is being able to understand the process, being able to understand how to plan a project, how to approach the work you do, because those are the most valuable skills you learn. Maybe you can build a flywheel, you can build a really nice drive train, but as you go through college, you’ll learn those things. But those aren't the real skills you're learning through RECF programs. Again, the beauty of these programs are the soft skills you're learning, those workforce development skills - how to operate in a STEM workplace.

Those are the most important skills that I take and apply every day to my job. Being able to take a task, break it down into separate parts and go through a process to either write a new feature or build a new product and to be able to support that product throughout its entire life cycle and just make iterative changes throughout - those things are more important skills to master -more so than just the competitions. Those are absolutely the biggest lessons that I got from my participation in VEX, not only as a student but as an EP as well, and I believe those lessons are the ones we need to pass on to students today.

While dedicated mentors abound at the Robotics Education and Competition Foundation, it is rare that a volunteer is named Teacher of the Year. In December, Natasha Craft, a robotics coach and educator of 27 years for Pulaski Elementary School in Somerset, KY, received the Robert and Patricia Kern National Teacher of the Year award for her work with Project Lead the Way. This accolade comes on the heels of her winning the Kentucky Farm Bureau’s 2023 Excellence in Ag Literacy Award just weeks earlier. 

We sat down with this remarkable teacher and talked about the importance of starting STEM education early, how teaching runs in the family, and what she plans to do with new opportunities created through her achievements. Congratulations Natasha!

Tell us about how you arrived at Pulaski Elementary School.

Well, I've lived in Kentucky my whole life. In fact, my mom was principal at my school. Before that, my grandmother taught for 46 years before retiring. My sister is a high school counselor and my husband was a principal before he retired. All of us are educators, so I guess it runs in the family.

For me, I teach elementary school here in Somerset, and all the students in the building come to my STEM lab. We’re kindergarten through fifth grade, so they rotate through my classroom, and I mainly teach Project Lead the Way with them. I've done that for about 10 years now. This is my 27th year of teaching, and prior to the STEM lab I taught fourth grade science, so that's been lots of fun.

27 years is a long time! How did you make the transition from science teacher to the STEM lab?

I asked! After 12 or 13 years of teaching science I was ready for something new, so I went to my principal and I said, could I have one year to try teaching a different subject? She then asked me, “How would you feel about doing a STEM lab and teaching all the students in the building?” I just thought that was awesome…no tests, just learning science, engineering, solving problems, and driving robots. My students beg to stay in the lab instead of going to recess. So it's been amazing.

Was robotics a part of your school’s curriculum prior to your involvement with the STEM lab?

No, I brought it to the school. Before that there was nothing in place outside of science education for fourth graders. I tried to do lots of hands-on stuff, but still it was different than a lab. I guess I came in at a good time in 2014, because that was the first year that Project Lead the Way had an elementary program that was available to everyone. Before that, it was always limited to just middle school and high school. So when I started searching for something to do in a lab, I found Project Lead the Way. I brought that in and for fifth graders there was a robotics module that used VEX kits. So that's kind of how I learned about it. At first we were just going through the modules and following the instructions, but after a year or so we branched out and thought, “We can compete with this, we can do this”. We kept getting bigger and started our IQ team after that.

Clearly you had a classroom full of very capable kids! Why do you think it is important to get students as young as yours involved in STEM early?

I think it's incredibly important. It's a game changer to start them that early because it completely changes their thought process, so when they're adults, they attack problems differently. I feel like they have the necessary skills, not just in science, but whatever problem they're faced with - they can handle it. When I first started, the kids would fall apart if I gave them a problem to solve and they couldn't get it to work right. There were tears. They would just stop and refuse to do anything else because they had never been faced with that before. So this program has given them confidence because all we do is solve problems. I always tell them, “this is not going to work the first time. You're going to have to really work at it and figure it out.” Now they've gotten to where it doesn't bother them if it doesn't work.

For example, when I won the award, a TV crew came to my lab with about 15 people around the room in suits, and my students weren’t bothered at all. They just explained to the reporters what they were doing and what didn't work, and moved on to the next idea.

Also, when working with other students it’s great because they're not working in isolation - they're working in a group. So they have to learn to be able to communicate with other kids whether they like their partner or not. They have to be able to talk with them and come up with a solution. There's just so many skills that are important outside the classroom that they learn through this experience. 

Congratulations on winning Teacher of the Year! How did it feel to receive that award?

I couldn't believe it. I knew I'd been nominated and had to fill out the paperwork and stuff, but I never expected to actually win anything. They had a group of 32 people that they had recognized as outstanding educators and I learned I was in that list. 

And then I get the phone call. “This is CEO of Project Lead The Way. I’m just calling to tell you you've won our top award.” I couldn't believe it, but I really think it will open lots of doors. I've been thinking toward the future, of course.

Like I said, this is my 27th year of teaching, so I'm within a year and a half, two years of retiring, but I don't want to stop working. So I really think that by winning this award and the Kentucky Farm Bureau Teacher of the Year award I'm going to be able to talk to a lot of people. There are conferences I wouldn't have been invited to otherwise and I’ll be able to continue to educate, but kind of in a different way after I retire. I think by being able to promote REC Foundation programs to a wider audience, I can show other teachers the benefit of bringing robotics to the classroom.

Do you think it will be difficult to get buy-in from other educators? What will you tell them?

I don’t think so, but I know they're going to feel intimidated at first. I did myself, and you might not know where to turn or what to do at first, but it’s important to just do something. Jump in and try it. It's going to be okay, and you're going to learn as you go. The best part is, the kids are going to help. 

There's so many resources available to educators, and there’s a huge community of people involved in REC Foundation programs that are willing to help. I know there's mentorship programs that are offered where you can get step-by-step instructions and one-on-one help if you need it. There's just so much support out there, and it's worth taking the risk yourself and occasionally having to say, “I don't know”. 

In the end, it's worth trying because I have seen the impact these programs have on the kids as they learn robotics themselves and grow. If you can get up enough courage to get started, the students are going to get excited and pull you along…and then you just keep moving!

Greenville, TX – October 11, 2023 – To celebrate the International Day of the Girl, The Robotics Education & Competition (REC) Foundation and the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) today announced a partnership that will create greater access to hands-on learning, mentorship, scholarships, and workforce opportunities in robotics and drone programming for young women from grade school through post-college professional development. With aligned goals, both organizations are working to provide girls the skills to advance academically and professionally through a supportive community to inspire current and future generations of women engineers.

The purpose of the partnership is to build a stronger community of support for young women in STEM by including SWE members in REC Foundation programs including VEX Robotics Competitions, Aerial Drones Competitions, and Girl Powered Initiatives.

VEX Robotics Competitions is the largest and fastest growing middle school and high school robotics program globally with more than 30,000 teams from 80 countries playing in over 2,900 competitions worldwide. Girls in the Society of Women Engineers community will also have access to the Aerial Drone Competition, an exciting educational drone sporting event that focuses on hands-on, student-centered learning where teams learn about drone flight programming, flying principles, and related career opportunities.

The Girl Powered program offers students the opportunity to attend workshops, which provide an environment where girls can explore robotics at their own pace, offering them tools to help them succeed. Additionally, various scholarships and internship options will be available to pursue. 

“This new partnership reinforces our common goal to increase the number of women engineers,'' said Dan Mantz, CEO of the REC Foundation. “Our complementary programming and events give students and young professionals in our communities critical access to resources and networking connections to further develop the necessary skills that will positively impact their futures,” said Mantz said.

Girls participating in REC Foundation programs will have the opportunity to join the SWENEXT clubs across the country. This program gives girls up to age of 18 an opportunity to further develop leadership skills and confidence through hands-on learning, mentorships, and related resources to become successful engineers.

“Giving young women more access to hands-on STEM opportunities is vital to help them develop a STEM identity,” said Karen Horting, Executive Director and CEO of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE).  “Through our partnership with the REC Foundation, we will expand our ability to showcase robotics and drone technology and provide access to the accompanying educational tools to foster their interest in these innovative fields.”

About the Robotics Education & Competition (REC) Foundation

The Robotics Education & Competition (REC) Foundation is a global organization dedicated to increasing student engagement in science, technology, engineering, math, and computer science (STEM) by engaging students in hands-on, curriculum-based robotics and drones programs. Through comprehensive programs encompassing competitions, education, and workforce readiness, the foundation empowers educators to inspire and equip students for success. The REC Foundation strives to create a future where every student designs and innovates as part of a team, overcomes failure, perseveres, and emerges confident in their ability to meet global challenges. Through sustainable and affordable curriculum-based robotics programs, the REC Foundation is inspiring students, one robot at a time.

About Society of Women Engineers

The Society of Women Engineers (SWE), founded in 1950, is the world’s largest advocate and catalyst for change for women in engineering and technology. The not-for-profit educational and service organization is the driving force that establishes engineering as a highly desirable career aspiration for women. To ensure SWE members reach their full potential as engineers and leaders, the Society offers unique opportunities to network, provides professional development, shapes public policy and provides recognition for the life-changing contributions and achievements of women engineers. As a champion of diversity, SWE empowers women to succeed and advance in their personal and professional lives. For more information about the Society, please visit www.swe.org.

REC Foundation Media Contact

Jenn Goonan
Rocket Social Impact
Jenn@RocketSocialImpact.com

Amir Tillis is a VEX alumni who participated in V5RC events while in high school. He currently works at Deloitte as a technical consultant where his primary focus is space and defense clients. “People always ask me what Technical Consultants do,” Amir told us. “Essentially we problem solve - a client comes to us with a particular set of issues  and we work together to come up with a solution. That is about as much detail as I can give as these issues are always different, and because I work in the space and defense industry, much of them are classified.”

So how did Amir find his way to Deloitte? It all started with an ad he saw in high school for his robotics club. Amir says that during his first visit to the robotics club had him hooked, even though he had to overcome some preconceived notions of what robotics is about. “This was basically our first introduction to STEM, and when you are younger, you have some pretty wild ideas of what a robot is” he said. 

Still, it wasn’t just the robots that truly spoke to Amir, but rather team dynamics around the design process that really drew him in. “All of a sudden we are on this team, and we somehow had to accomplish a goal without a lot of outside help. So you learn a lot about communication, working with different personalities, and who you can depend on to get things done. I really believe the true benefit there was this introduction to working as a team at such a young age.”

Amir’s robotics experience led him to the engineering program at the University of Colorado Boulder, financed via a position in the National Guard. And while he says he owes much of his success to his mother for constantly pushing him forward, he also believes that REC Foundation programs helped him learn the perseverance to overcome obstacles and eventually land a job he loves at Deloitte. “In V5RC, a lot of things are bound not to work the first time.” Amir said. “You have a plan A for developing the robot, which fails, so you move to plan B. Then when plan B doesn’t work out, you go to plan C, or you might have to just start all over at square one. V5RC was my first experience learning that even though you might fail, you have to keep going in pursuit of the end goal, and I am grateful for that.”

When asked about advice he has for students who might want to pursue a career like his, Amir was immediately ready to reply. “Constantly try new things. There are so many options in robotics and life in general, and you need to experience those things in order to figure out whether you like them or not. Try them and see where your mind and body takes you, because you never know where you’ll end up.”

In honor of Native American Heritage month, we took a trip to the White Mountain Apache Reservation to speak with RECF volunteer Triscinda Miller. Triscinda is a STEM tech with Apache Behavioral Health Services who has been involved in coaching Native teams for the past six years. We caught up with her during the 4th Annual Southwest Native American Showcase, and spoke about how she got into the world of VEX robotics, the unique challenges her students face on the reservation, and the intersection of REC Foundation robotics programs and Native American culture.

RECF: Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Triscinda: My name is Triscinda Miller and I work with Apache Behavioral Health Services, as STEM Tech II. So I kind of do a little bit of everything, mainly teaching STEM to kids and then also focusing on counseling and mentoring clients that are enrolled with Apache Behavioral Health Services. We service all the kids within the school. I'm from the San Carlos Apache tribe, so I wasn't born and raised here, but it's been a good move. I've been up here for about seven years and it's been nice. I love the mountains because San Carlos is a desert, so the complete opposite of what you see here.

RECF: It is absolutely beautiful here. How did you get involved in robotics?

Triscinda: It's part of my job. When I first got hired on, about six years ago, there was really only one team that was doing a lot of robotics, and it was very slow getting the program into the other schools. So I got involved with that, helping to coach the teams and grow the program. When Blue Ridge High School in nearby Lakeside got their tournament running, we wanted to host our own events here on the reservation, so they needed someone to learn Tournament Manager. So I was like, “I'll do it.” 

I went to Blue Ridge and sat with the guys there that ran Tournament Manager and learned from them. And I believe that was about five years ago I think. Sounds about right. So ever since then I've been helping run Tournament Manager. I don't want to say I run it. I've been helping with it.

RECF: That’s amazing. Even if you’re “just” helping, you clearly really love being involved. What excites you most about the Southwest Native American Showcase?

Triscinda: Oh, what excites me? So in this tournament, well, any tournament really, it's exciting to see what students have come up with. We're all working at our different schools, so when we all come together, it’s incredible seeing the students' ideas and how those idea come together in a robot. It's amazing because it's their work and their ideas coming to life. 

In a small community like ours, a lot of the kids are shy. With the alliances, they have to break out of that and having to talk to their teammates, I think that's a great skill to have. It's just practice and the ones that continue to come back, you can start to see that growth in their social skills.

I love that these competitions provide students the opportunity to go and talk and meet new people, and even though they're from the same community, and probably know of each other, they get the experience of working together as well.

RECF: So, native culture and robotics seem like they would be far apart, but here it clearly works. Why do you think that is?

Triscinda: I feel like we as native people have a resiliency built within us. And by that I mean, anyone you talk to here, they'll bring that resiliency. We just have this rubber band effect. They can stretch us so far, but we'll come back. When students build their robots, they could fail. They'll see that as a negative experience and they'll be like, “Oh, I don't want to be here anymore. I don't want to be on this team anymore.” Yet they still come back.

They use their culture to refocus, and I feel like that's part of who they are. It's something innate, that's built in them to try again. I'm a little biased because I haven't worked anywhere else, so I haven't worked with any other culture, but what I see is their resiliency - being able to continue to build and push through when it gets tough, when they don't want to do it anymore. We as coaches talk to them and encourage them to keep going. It's part of the process.

I see it as a life skill that they're building. 

RECF: I couldn’t agree more. So, as you look around the room today, what is your hope for the students you see here?

Triscinda: I would love to see them grow beyond the reservation. Our goal with the robotics program is to keep them in it, to get them to learn as much as they possibly can. I would love to see them find a career in robotics, even if it's not building - at least coding, and ultimately getting out to see the world. A lot of our kids tend to stay close by because it's comfortable, but getting used to being uncomfortable would be nice. I want them to go out and see the world, go to different states, even just go on a trip to Dallas for Worlds. 

When we took the kids there, they got to the convention center and they were like, “Wow!” Their eyes just opened so wide. So getting used to that feeling, I think. I hope that they can take these experiences here from elementary straight through to college, and if they apply what they’ve learned in college and see the places that it can take them, they can go anywhere. That's my dream for them.

Like many REC Foundation (RECF) mentors, Yazmin Rivera got into robotics with little prior experience after her school’s STEM teacher departed and she was asked to fill in for the position. Despite this inexperience, she quickly became intrigued after attending an RECF training. Her curiosity was reinforced by her relationship with her father, an auto mechanic, who supported her interest and quickly became Yazmin’s sounding board when she felt stuck on mechanical issues. Her passion for robotics is now a family affair, and her siblings and parents can often be found helping out in various capacities at local tournaments. 

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, we sat down with Yazmin, and spoke with her about her role as a math teacher and robotics mentor at an all-girls school in El Paso, Texas, as well as how her Hispanic background helped push her forward in her profession.

RECF: Tell us a little bit about yourself. Do you have a background in robotics?

Yazmin: My name is Yazmin Rivera, and I have lived in the El Paso, TX area all my life. I currently serve as a math teacher for sixth and seventh grade students at a 6-12 grade school.

In terms of robotics, I had no experience prior to getting involved at my school. After the previous STEM instructor left, they asked me if I wanted the position and if I wanted to start a robotics club. I reluctantly agreed to do it on the condition that I got some training, and here I am today. Honestly the best part about it was the fact that it got me closer to my dad, because he’s a mechanic, and loves to tinker and fix things, which you do a lot of in robotics.

RECF: So did your dad get into robotics after you got involved in RECF programs?

Yazmin: (Laughs) Yes, my dad absolutely loves it. I’ll bring home a robot that I’ve been working on with the girls, and he will look it over and tell me how he thinks the design could be improved. 

We’re obviously student centered, and he gives me the perspective to guide the girls a little bit, but it’s so special because I get to hear his thoughts - it's been a huge bonding experience. Our girls, some of whom might not have that relationship with their dads, can see the positive relationship I’ve made with my father through robotics.

RECF: That’s wonderful. I know you’re heavily invested in the Girl Powered program. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Yazmin: I started taking my own girls to Girl Powered events in 2018 and they loved it. Learning more about coding, building, and also hearing from other women in STEM from our region helped create a connection and allowed them to feel that there is a path forward for women like them. Seeing themselves in those women, especially those individuals who are already breaking barriers and pave those paths is so important. So I think Girl Powered is incredibly motivating. This year we’re hosting our third annual Girl Powered event for middle school and elementary school girls, and around 500 attend every year. I'm very thankful to everyone in the region that allows these girls to miss some school time to come over and learn a little bit more about STEM.

RECF: It sounds like you’ve found a lot of success in that program despite societal barriers that often prevent girls from getting involved in STEM. Where do you find the inspiration and motivation to help level the playing field in STEM for women and girls?

Yazmin: It might be stereotypical, but I believe my heritage, and my culture as a Mexican-American, is about moving forward no matter what. You keep fighting, and no matter how tired you become, no matter how tedious something may be, you persist. My culture is such that we have created a sense of family unity where everyone comes together to support you and keep going. I have tried to instill these values in my students as well - that heritage of pushing forward with determination and persistence. I want them to apply those ideas to everything they do.

Working with our partners at the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, the REC Foundation celebrates Native American Heritage Month by highlighting indigenous people in various domains of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).  We want to share  individual stories to inspire you and your teams. We are so humbled  to be a part of a diverse STEM community,  and continue to work to make STEM accessible and inclusive to everyone.

Lee Johnson, Jr.

Tribal Affiliation: Navajo
Industry: Cyber Security


“Don't be afraid to apply to any position, even if you feel you don't meet all the requirements. If I've learned anything from my past internships, it's that with any new tool or skill I needed to learn, I always had team members and managers willing to assist me with any problems or challenges I faced.”

How did you become interested in cyber security?

I became interested in Cyber Security after taking my first IT security course in college and learning how to defend and attack web applications and computer networks. The industry is constantly evolving and continuous learning is a passion of mine.

Who were your mentors?

Early on my mentors were my College IT department supervisors. I would regularly volunteer my time there to learn how their department worked and what tools and skills I would need to become an IT professional. After accepting my first internship, I would always ask my managers if they would also mentor me throughout the internship. I still keep in touch with every one of them. At my current position at Mulesoft I have two mentors - my direct product security lead and another member of the Mulesoft team. We meet bi-weekly and monthly to discuss my career goals and their experiences in the industry.

What words of wisdom do you have for students?

Don't be afraid to apply to any position, even if you feel you don't meet all the requirements. If I've learned anything from my past internships, it's that with any new tool or skill I needed to learn, I always had team members and managers willing to assist me with any problems or challenges I faced.

Mariah Gladstone

Tribal Affiliation: Blackfeet, Cherokee
Industry: Environmental Science/Ecology

"Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Don't choose between your hobbies but instead, find ways that they intersect. Always be willing to learn new skills or even old skills in new ways." 

How did you become interested in your career field?

I initially thought that I wanted to work in environmental engineering, which is what I studied in undergrad. However, when I moved back home after college, I realized that there was an urgent need to build food sovereignty in my community. Reconnecting with our traditional foods is essential to both our own mind and body health but also to the health of the land.

I started an online cooking show called Indigikitchen to reteach this information using digital media. I was fortunate to have an opportunity to return to school through the Sloan Indigenous Graduate Partnership where I studied Environmental Science and was able to blend food systems work with Indigenous ecology. 

Who were your mentors?

Robin Kimmerer (Citizen Band Potawatomi) for her ecological wisdom, Valerie Segrest (Muckleshoot) for her nutritional brilliance, Janie Hipp (Chickasaw) for her sovereignty advocacy and youth involvement.

What advice would you give to students?

Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Don't choose between your hobbies but instead, find ways that they intersect. Always be willing to learn new skills or even old skills in new ways. 

Aaron Yazzie

Tribal Affiliation: Diné (Navajo)
Industry: Mechanical Engineering

"Don't limit your dreams to what you see in front of you. Dream big, work hard, and as you jump from one opportunity to the next, you'll reveal your own abilities and your full potential."

How did you become interested in STEM?

I always enjoyed being creative, and building things, even as a kid. I loved to jump into projects, building toy airplanes, towers, and parachutes out of things I could find around the house. I also grew up helping my dad and mom around the house, in our rural homeland. In addition to doing yard and household chores, my brothers and I helped build fences, sheds, porches, and even the foundation for our own house. I think this hands-on work with my parents helped to develop me into a design thinker, a practical planner, and a creative doer.

Who were your mentors?

My parents were my first mentors and role models. Both of them were the first in their traditional Navajo families to pursue higher education, and both ended up in a STEM field. Navajo was their first language, and they didn't learn English until elementary school. My mother became a high school math educator, and my father a civil engineer. They always made me believe that college was going to be part of my educational path. Because of them, I always set my goals high, and challenged myself to make them happen.

What advice would you give to students?

Dream bigger! I spent so much of my time as a student and young engineer not thinking that I could achieve as much as I have. If you asked me when I was a young boy in my small hometown if my dream was to be a NASA engineer, I would have said "no". I never understood that this kind of career, this kind of dream, was open to me too. Don't limit your dreams to what you see in front of you. Dream big, work hard, and as you jump from one opportunity to the next, you'll reveal your own abilities and your full potential.

Anything else you'd like to share?

I am currently working on NASA's efforts to determine if Mars ever once hosted life. I was the lead engineer for creating and delivering drill bits for the Perseverance Rover, which landed on Mars in 2021. Perseverance will use these drill bits to grab rock core samples from an ancient lake-bed on Mars, so that we can save those samples in tubes, and eventually pick up and bring back to Earth its next Mars missions.

I am now working on the Mars Sample Return Campaign to send two more robotic missions to Mars to grab those sample tubes, and bring them back to Earth. We will study those rock samples here on Earth, and hopefully determine if Mars ever once hosted microbial life! I am so proud to be well ingrained in this NASA effort, contributing to efforts on the forefront of our scientific knowledge.

Cheryl Reuss

Tribal Affiliation: Navajo
Industry: Technology/Photography

"Keep learning. Never stop expanding your knowledge. In technology, things are changing at the speed of light, and staying relevant will keep you one step ahead."

How did you become interested your career field?

Honestly, I kind of fell into my career. When I finished my Post Bac for Secondary Ed, I was really hoping to teach High School business, instead I was matched with a middle school computer teacher, and ended up teaching K-8 Computers for 8 of the 10 years of my career. It was a blast! When I went back to school for my MBA, I worked as a Business Analyst for a few years, and like a magnet was drawn back to technology, helping to integrate a new system for the company where I worked. Most recently, I have been working as a Systems Administrator. In my spare time, I photograph wildlife and nature. I love the logic that you need to follow to understand technology and photography.

Who were your mentors?

My first real mentor was the U.S. Marine Corps. I learned that if I applied myself and worked hard, I could accomplish my goals. Next would be Sandee Holiday, a computer teacher at Royal Palm Middle School. She was my student teaching mentor, and then my colleague. She showed me I knew a lot more than I thought I did and she gave me the confidence I needed to be successful in the classroom. I have also looked to my colleagues as mentors - whether they were right or wrong, I learned from them.

What advice would you give to students?

While I was growing up, I didn’t see many people of my color in the career fields I was interested in. These days, there are so many avenues to explore in technology...math, science, and engineering. Don’t be afraid to try different avenues to find what makes you happy. Also, if you fail, don’t let that be the end: get up, try again. It is probably cliche to say, however we learn from our failures. Lastly, always ask the question why, and then ask why again. Don’t get stuck with the response, that’s how it’s always been done, because you may know a better way.

Mary Jo Ondrechen

Tribal Affiliation: Mohawk
Industry: Chemistry

"Keep hold of your Native traditions and culture."

How did you become interested your career field?

As a child, my parents taught me about nature. I also had an excellent high school chemistry teacher, Mrs. Prine.

Who were your mentors?

My parents and elders, my PhD advisor, and some colleagues still today.

What advice would you give to students?

 Find mentors - ask them if they would be your mentor.

Janeen Uzzell is the Chief Executive Officer at the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), the largest Black STEM community impacting society and industry. In her former role as the Chief Operating Officer for the Wikimedia Foundation, which operates Wikipedia, Janeen drove process improvement and helped launch the Wikimedia Knowledge Equity Fund to address racial inequities in free knowledge. For nearly two decades, she held various roles at General Electric, working in healthcare technologies in some of the world’s most challenging environments. Janeen received her Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, and an MBA in International Business from Fairleigh Dickinson University. Janeen fuses her passion for social justice and her leadership to shine light on inequality in tech spaces and forge opportunities for others.

Tell us a little bit about your journey as an engineer.

My cousin Lasander Uzzell inspired me to become an engineer. He was the first engineer I had known of; he was 2-3 years older than me, and a mechanical engineer. When I first began looking at what I was going to study in school, he said I was smart, I was good at math and science, and that If I studied engineering, I would always have a job. He said that there weren’t enough women in the space, so I should go for it. That’s why I decided to study engineering.

I didn't know any engineers. I certainly didn't know any black ones and unfortunately, I didn't have the encouragement that I should have received from the leadership at my high school. I went to an all-girls Catholic High School, so there was a challenge when I told them I was going to study engineering. I worked hard, studied hard, and decided to study engineering. And then my advisor at school suggested to my parents that I might be reaching outside of my capabilities and that maybe engineering was too much of a risk with all the physics and math involved. My dad wasn't having it, so I continued studying engineering and earned an academic scholarship to college. Then I went on to become UM Pitas Sigma, which is the Mechanical Engineering Honor Society.

The hardest part of the journey was the academic piece. Engineering is very, very hard. The courses are difficult. The ability to understand the way that technology is currently taught is difficult, which is why Dr. Rochelle, our Chief Programs Officer, is so committed to equity in the classrooms. Even at HBCUs, the language of technology and the cadence at which it's taught can be very difficult to comprehend and understand, particularly for someone like me who needs to consume knowledge multiple times before it is fully set through. So that was a hard part of the journey. Plus, the cost – it's expensive.

So that's my journey. I love engineering. I love technology. I prefer to lead technology, as opposed to being it. I don't want to do the work of design engineering anymore. So, when I left GE, I was the head of the women in STEM, and then I went to work at Wikipedia because I still wanted to stay in tech. I wanted to work in an equitable environment where I could push the buttons of equity in technology. I wanted to push the buttons in a space where technology could be the lever to change the way the world works. I believe without a doubt that the next way the world will be changed from a justice perspective is through technology. And while I was there, we did a lot of very, very, very important work on the platform.

And then I received a phone call from some of the former leaders at GE that I used to work with, my Chief Diversity Officer and some other leaders, that shared with me the opportunity to work at the NSBE. I used to be an advisor through GE for NSBE students that we hired to ensure their success, so I thought that it might be an important thing to do and certainly the right thing to do. But after talking to some of my mentors, I was assured It was the right thing, the right time, and that I would be the right person to help guide us into our 50th anniversary.

I spoke with my mom, who I respect tremendously, she was 89 or 90 at the time, and she used to be involved with NSBE when I was in school as well, and she felt that black students needed to see a black woman – a black woman that had come from NSBE, and that the world should see who we are and who we can become. That is how I ended up becoming the CEO of NSBE and my work here will be to position us for the legacy beyond 50. I don't take it lightly, that as a black organization, we're turning 50. That has happened very few times in history and to set the organization up for success beyond me – my hope is that I'll leave it better than I found it.

What does National Society of Black Engineers do, and how do you serve school age children of color in the exploration and pursuit of STEM?

NSBE does so much and has been doing it for 49 years. Our mission statement is to increase the number of culturally responsible black engineers who excel academically, succeed professionally, and positively impact the community.

The first part of it is to increase, and that's a critical part of our game change 2025 strategy. We're here to increase the number of Blacks in STEM. And that's not separate from our mission that refers to black engineers. It's just that 49 years ago, that was the critical foundation. And we know that the world now leans more into STEM. So, we have a large portion of it, in fact, the largest community in our student membership is now computer science. That's more on the tech side than mechanical engineering – we have science and so many others.

We increase the number of Blacks in STEM by serving school age children. Building our pipeline is the most critical way to increase. Exposing and teaching young Black boys and girls while making STEM relevant and fun is what we do.

Teaching a little black girl how to code by teaching her how to cornrow, which something she already knows how to do. That's what our summer engineering experience for kids can do. So, we're building a pipeline through programmatic work, partnerships, work with NSBE Jr., and our pre-college initiative. We are doing that through new staff we've hired, particularly in our MarCom department where we're leveraging social media and positioning NSBE in a way that is beyond what it means to dress the part, work on the Convention floor, and be able to interview.

You know, when we say culturally responsible, our culture is who we are – so we always want to do it in everything that represents us. We are teaching our younger students what it means to be an “other” in the space of tech, and by “other” I mean anyone that's not traditional in this and in humanity, which are people of color – black people – we are the others. Teaching things like empathetic coding and the power of social justice and technology. Last summer in our SEEK program, we taught design in a way young people understand it.

We have NSBE junior chapters that are sponsored by many black organizations in the Divine 9 and The Links, Inc. And they're able to spend time at the schools with the students, which is important, because these students see people that look like them, that study STEM, that are engineers – and they teach it. These are the people that are helping them solve the problems or showing them that they can solve the problems. They get big audacious projects during the time that they're NSBE juniors and for the school year.

In my opinion, pulling students into the programs is just as important as getting them out of it. And so that's how we serve these Black children.

What can individuals do to support organizations like NSBE?

Individuals can support NSBE in so many ways. The first thing that comes immediately to mind is being an advocate for the importance of our mission and the relevancy of who we are and what we're teaching. Many nonprofit leaders might say that the most important thing an individual can do is give to a mission. I'm not forfeiting that. We definitely need to give. But what we really need as a black organization is to not have to consistently prove the relevancy of why we are here. 49 years later NSBE exists for the very same reasons that our founders started this organization. And so, the advocacy of the importance of what it means to be black, be black as an engineer, be black in STEM and the work that we do.

Also, to individuals that have the opportunity to hire black people in STEM – and not only hire them, but also ensure that they are given powerful work assignments and projects that matter and will transform the world as opposed to hiring them just for the sake of a number. We need individuals that believe in the value of what it means to do this work, because if that happens well, then we won't have to work so hard for the giving. Not to mean that we won't have to work to raise funding because we do need individuals to give to our mission, but individuals will recognize the power of what it means for us to exist, and then the support will be an easier process.

What advice do you have for Black youth who wish to pursue a career in engineering?

Any Black youth wishing to pursue a career in engineering should do so. I personally think that engineering should be a base curriculum for everyone. It is like general studies – basic engineering, not mechanical, not nuclear, not electrical, but general engineering. One and two I think should be general studies and then you can build any other curriculum: communications, economics, whatever else you want to build. You can build it on that. Why? Because once you have the foundations of some of this critical thinking, we need that in all other areas. If you have a desire or wish to study engineering, you absolutely should.

Having a voice in what happens in your community will affect your education, and you're never too young to be a part of that. If engineering is something you wish for, then you should start taking the tough courses now. I would encourage you to do it.

Why is it important that Black youth get exposed to programs similar to ones that the Robotics Education & Competition (REC) Foundation provides?

Programs like the ones the REC Foundation offers are so important for all the reasons that we've been speaking about, but I'll just highlight a few. First and foremost, it's a great way for students to have hands on experience. Engineering is not a “read the book and learn it” type of curriculum. And we saw the impact of that during COVID when our students were challenged to be separated from one another and not in the lab working collectively. So, programs like robotic competitions, the way that they work with educators and the workforce to ready them to both teach this work and then for the students to have a hands-on experience, is the way students learn. It is definitely the way students of color have been proven to learn better. And then for engineering, it's absolutely when you see yourself building something and you see it work and you can understand the mechanics of how something works, that you're able to take that same thought process and use it to solve any other type of problem.

The REC Foundation has touched millions of students in partnership with NSBE, and the possibilities are endless in this collaboration. We're excited to work together, and we value the work that this group does. I encourage family members, mentors and others that have young people with an interest in tinkering, gaming, and all those types of things to get them into programs like this because that is where they're going to learn. They're just going to get water for their mind and food for their soul. And it's going to help to drive that interest even further.

All Native American and Indigenous Teams are invited to participate in the 3rd Annual Native American Showcase Events - November 18-19, 2022 in Whiteriver, Arizona.   Teams will have an opportunity to earn spots to the 2023 VEX Robotics World Championship!  Teams must be either a Native American Reservation School Team,  Tribal School Team,  or Native American / First Nations Team (defined as at least 50% or more of the students on that team recognized as Native or Indigenous) to be eligible to compete.

 Each event will qualify 4 spots to VEX Worlds Championships 2023, as follows:

  •      Excellence Award - 2 spots (1 for each grade level)
  •      Tournament Champions (2 spots)

These events are intended for teams to be able to highlight their tribe or Nation.  If it is acceptable to the tribe, teams are invited to submit a short video highlighting some aspect of their tribal culture.

Event details can be found here:

V5RC, White Mountain Apache Southwest Native American Showcase Event,(In Person), Blended HS & MS

VIQC, White Mountain Apache Southwest Native American Showcase Event,(In Person), Blended ES & MS

As part of Hispanic Heritage month (September 15-October 15) the REC Foundation is highlighting Hispanic members of the VEX robotics community. We recently sat down with Patricia Cortez, an educator based in Dallas, Texas, Air Force pilot and AI Researcher Victor Lopez, and Carlos Hernandez, Computer Science and Technology Department Coordinator for the Dallas Independent School District. We spoke with them about the challenges they faced getting involved in STEM, the people that helped them along the way, and advice for members of the Hispanic community who want to get involved in robotics. A huge thanks to all of you for being such vibrant supporters of student roboticists!

Patricia Cortez
Educator
Dallas Independent School District

Headshot of Patricia Cortez
Patricia Cortez

“As a Hispanic woman serving and living in the exact same community in which I grew up, I must say I am fortunate to be able to come back and empower children with the skills and confidence necessary to represent their culture and heritage proudly.”

What first inspired you to become involved in STEM?

How I became interested in robotics is quite a funny story. I initially joined robotics as a co-coach with a friend. He convinced me to go on this journey of which I knew absolutely nothing about. Doubting my robotics abilities, I decided to be a “behind the scenes” coach. I helped students with organization skills, interview skills, notebooking skills and presentation skills. I did that for three years and in that third year I encountered two little third grade girls that would end up being my inspiration for many later decisions. These girls didn’t want a behind the scenes role on the team, they wanted to do more for the team, they wanted to be drivers, programmers, builders. Therefore, I had to do more. We ended up venturing out on our own and creating our own all girl, Latina team, the LadyBots. These girls taught me so much about robotics, about taking risks, and most importantly to always believe in yourself.

What challenges have you overcome within the program?

One of the greatest challenges has been getting girls to believe in themselves. Many girls lack self-confidence, particularly in public speaking and aren’t confident in their abilities. However, getting my girls to truly believe they can do ANYTHING that anyone else can do no matter their gender or race has been the best challenge I have overcome as a coach within the program.

What has been the best thing about being involved in robotics/STEM?

The best thing about being involved in robotics is seeing student growth. Not only in the aspect of creating robots, but in their self-confidence, their communication skills, their organization skills, their social skills, and their leadership. Robotics isn’t just building robots, “robotics is life” as one of my LadyBots would say. These girls have created a brand for themselves with their engineering abilities, communication skills, style, and girl power pride and it just fills my  heart with so much joy.

Why do you think that more Hispanic students should become involved in robotics/STEM?

Currently, we have a small population of Hispanic engineers in the United States. In fact, Hispanics make up 16 percent of the American workforce, but only 8 percent of scientists and engineers, according to the National Science Foundation. Needless to say we are underrepresented. Robotics is a gateway to many STEM fields and provides numerous benefits including leadership opportunities, communication skills, problem solving, and collaboration skills, just to name a few. Let’s get some more of our Raza representing! It all begins somewhere!

What words of wisdom would you give to students in or outside of robotics currently?

Believe in yourself and never doubt your capabilities. Starting robotics is half the battle. The other half can be accomplished with grit, determination, and perseverance. Robotics may seem “hard”, but there is nothing about it that can't be learned. “¡Si, se puede!”

Believe in yourself and never doubt your capabilities. Starting robotics is half the battle. The other half can be accomplished with grit, determination, and perseverance. Robotics may seem “hard”, but there is nothing about it that can't be learned. “¡Si, se puede!”

Carlos Hernandez
Computer Science/Technology Department Coordinator
Dallas Independent School District

“John Quincy Adams said it best, ‘Patience and perseverance have a magical effect before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish.’ Success doesn’t always come immediately; you must fail a few times and learn from your failures before you can taste success. So, when the task seems difficult, be patient, take a deep breath, and full steam ahead.”

Carlos Hernandez

How long have you been in your career field?

I am a Coordinator in the Computer Science and Technology Department in Dallas ISD. I have served in this role for 4 years now. I help provide robotics program opportunities for our over 140,000 K-12 students. I also run district VEX IQ Challenge competitions for our over 160 VEX IQ teams. My task is to make students fall in love with the world of robotics.

What first inspired you to become involved in STEM?

As a child I would observe my father take things apart for repair; everything from car parts to ceiling fans, and even stereos. This intrigued me and I too began to wonder how things worked and what’s inside that makes them work. Seven years ago, while I was a classroom teacher, a coworker of mine asked if I wanted to help mentor a robotics team at our campus. I agreed and was introduced to the world of VEX Robotics Competitions. I became a kid all over again. Needless to say, I now live vicariously through them.

What challenges have you overcome?

Competing against sports programs was one of our biggest challenges. Many of our students thought that to participate in extracurricular programs, you must participate in athletics. Once robotics and other STEM programs were introduced to them, many fell in love with the program and felt like they fit in. In less than eight years our programs have gone from fewer than 10 robotics teams to well over 350 teams and growing. Presently, we are focused on increasing the number of female participants and increasing representation from underrepresented minority groups in our district’s programs.

What has been the best thing about being involved in robotics/STEM?

The best part of being involved with both robotics and STEM is watching how students learn to work in teams and develop their communication skills. I love watching the little light bulbs come on over their heads as they engage in conversations with teammates to solve a problem or strategize their moves for their next match. They don’t even notice the valuable skills and knowledge they are learning while they are caught up in the excitement.

Why do you think that more Hispanic students should become involved in robotics/STEM?

Growing up in a Hispanic household taught me a great lesson on how to persevere regardless of how tough the going got. Perseverance is an earmark of the Hispanic community. I believe more Hispanic students should become involved in STEM and help eliminate the potential barriers and encourage the younger Latinos to get involved in STEM. Currently, Hispanic individuals comprise only 8 percent of the STEM workforce. We must start making changes and become more involved.

Victor Lopez
Air Force Pilot
Artificial Intelligence Researcher for sUAS Agile Robots

Victor Lopez

"Robots are not just for nerdy engineers. We need all types of people and the best robots in the future will come from folks who understand how to blend art, science, and engineering to create something beautiful and easy to use to help people and save lives."

How did you get your start in robotics?

An internship with the precursor to NASA Pathways changed my perspective on how engineering and math could be used to help people around the world. I struggled to find meaning in the theory of mathematics, but I was enamored of those same methods used to predict landslides or provide early warning for natural disasters via space based assets.

Who were your mentors?

Early in my NASA internship, I was guided by my fellow cadets and professors at the United States Air Force Academy, and today I am honored to be a part of the Department of the Air Force’s new DAF - MIT Artificial Intelligence Accelerator, where we get to work with world class professors and students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to push forward state of the art AI towards very compelling humanitarian and defense related use cases.

What advice would you give to students?

The best roboticists I’ve met are also the best online searchers I’ve ever met, so learn to use your favorite search engine! The amount of education you can get online for free today is incredible, and the only thing that is holding you back is your own time and discipline. So start small! Learn how to code a small project… find a small Arduino project and explore what it can do with a friend! All of this can go on your resume and make you stand out among your peers. It may even help you land that internship!

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