By Justin Zaun and Manny Santana
DCMA Garden City
When Kyle Carter began mentoring high school engineering students nine years ago, he was eager but somewhat apprehensive.
As a Defense Contract Management Agency quality assurance specialist here for the past four years, and an engineering technician working in private industry for 17 years prior to that, Carter knew he had knowledge to share, but he was curious just how receptive the students would be.
“I was worried they would say, ‘Hey, old man, we’re not going to listen to you,’” he said. “But they listened, and they were willing to learn.”
Carter mentors ninth through 12th graders at Queens High School for Information, Research and Technology in Far Rockaway, N.Y. The group meets after school and often on weekends to prepare for the FIRST Robotics Competition, which is an annual event billed by organizers as a “varsity sport for the mind.” FIRST means “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.”
The worldwide competition requires groups of students to raise funds, design a team brand, and build and program a robot to perform prescribed tasks against a field of competitors. Volunteer professional mentors such as Carter lend their time and talents to guide each team.
The robots have to complete a task such as placing a ball into a hoop, shooting a soccer goal, picking up an object or climbing a wall. Students control the robot wirelessly with a joystick and antenna.
“It’s not like those robot fighting shows,” he said.
Carter’s team, which dubs itself the Blazen Botz, are currently preparing for the New York City regional competition in April. If the team performs well, they could vie for a national championship later this spring. In 2010, the team advanced to the championship round, which was held at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
Carter assists students with a variety of tasks including using hand tools, operating machine tools, fabricating metal, measuring parts, performing calculations and designing the robot.
“As a mentor, I will talk them through tasks, and let them run on their own,” he said. “When you show them how to cut wood or bend metal, they are very attentive because they want to learn how do it for themselves. It makes me proud to see kids grow and gain confidence.”
Students often receive college scholarships as a result of their experience with the program, and some return to the school as volunteers themselves after they graduate, he said.
“The kids involved with this program are dedicated,” Carter said. “It also helps keep them out of trouble and gives them an opportunity to do something constructive.”
In his youth, Carter wanted to be an airplane mechanic, so he attended East New York High School, which had an aviation program. He joined the Army after graduating and worked as an aircraft armament repairman on several different airframes, including the Cobra and Apache helicopters.
In addition to teaching mechanical skills, Carter draws on his quality assurance background to ensure the students know how to interpret schematics and closely follow instructions.
“When the kids look at the specifications and the requirements for the robot, they have to interpret the drawings or the rules correctly,” he said. “If they don’t, they won’t pass inspection and may have to cut pieces or refabricate something on the spot during the competition.”
Even though his mentoring efforts oftentimes include late nights and sacrificed weekends, he said he relishes the opportunity to pass on his knowledge.
“Throughout my life, there have been people who took the time to mentor me and show me the right way to do something, so I am going to do my best to show these kids the right way.”
Carter, who has two children of his own, says the satisfaction of seeing students learn and grow also keeps him motivated to continue volunteering.
“It’s like watching my own kids grow up,” he said. “The thought that the kids can really apply what I teach them, and use it to better their lives, makes me feel good. As long as the program is there, I’ll be around. If they want me, I’ll be there.”
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