The roar of robots racing, kids shouting and general mayhem filled the air as the FIRST Robotics 2014 Virginia Regional Competition got underway in April. FIRST Robotics’ mission is “to inspire young people to be science and technology leaders, by engaging them in exciting mentor-based programs that build science, engineering and technology skills, that inspire innovation, and that foster well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication, and leadership.”
Chris Thompson was there with two FIRST teams that he coaches, Team 1829 and the Carbonauts. And there was a new member of the pit crew on hand… a ShopBot Handibot® Smart Power Tool.
Chris and his students offered up the help of the Handibot tool to anyone needing an emergency part made quickly on this powerful, portable CNC tool.
Chris Thompson, a self-described lifelong maker (and grandson of a cabinetmaker), trained as an engineer at the Naval Academy, saw 7 years of active duty and is now a civilian engineer for the Navy.
In 2009, Thompson was feeling the need to empower more young people in his community — and other similar rural areas with underfunded schools — with the STEM skills that will help them thrive. So he was inspired to start the TEC Foundation, with the support of his Navy commanders. The foundation is a nonprofit organization formed to inspire and empower new generations of creative professionals and entrepreneurs by giving them early access to the tools of modern innovation.
Chris says, “I saw there is a need for an entity beyond what our public schools are able to provide for young people. I wanted to start makerspaces as 21st century public libraries — places where you can be self-taught in any manner of technology. So with some help from the Navy and now NASA, we’ve got two TEC Hubs opened up. One is in Salisbury, Maryland, the other in Onancock, VA.”
About a year ago, TEC Foundation was able to secure funds for four full-size ShopBot CNC tools. As Chris puts it, “these are the cornerstone tools for our students. They have transformed our FIRST Robotics teams’ ability to really get engaged and be successful in using CAD programs, to work out their robot designs and make them real with the ShopBot.” Thompson says that about 80% of the robot parts are CNC fabbed from aluminum and carbon fiber on the ShopBot. Here are some examples…
Chris is really excited about the Handibot Tool as a game changer in education. “I’ve attended many FIRST Robotics Competitions, and you’ll often see teams coming from communities that have the financial resources to have CNC equipment for their builds. The Handibot’s much more affordable price point is going to help less affluent communities gain access to CNC technology. With access to low-end 3D printers and affordable subtractive CNC such as the Handibot Tool, any kid from anywhere can dream and make anything.”
It Takes a Village…
Thompson pointed out that making an organization like this work requires the active participation and leadership of community mentors. TEC Hub is fortunate in having the efforts of several dedicated leaders:
Will Mast: “As a mechanical engineer at NASA, I designed and built structures and mechanisms for science experiments which have flown on suborbital rockets, balloons, research aircraft, and satellites. In 2000, I became a systems engineer, supporting the same types of missions. From 2007 to 2013, I was the deputy mission systems engineer for the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Explorer (LADEE) mission which orbited the moon for six months. I am currently working as a systems engineer in a rapid mission planning laboratory at Wallops Island where we design cubesat missions to support Goddard Science.”
Paul Suplee, who earned his BA in History at Loyola University, and is an MBA candidate at Johnson & Wales University. He works as a culinary instructor and private chef in the Ocean City, Maryland area. After spending many years in the professional kitchen and four years in the Marine Corps, Paul moved into the classroom where he has been for six years. Encouraged by his oldest son, he jumped at the chance to co-lead a team of school-aged kids in FIRST Robotics, Paul very quickly learned the difference between a servo and a motor, how to solder, and some basic programming skills and he hasn’t looked back since. He is most excited by water-based projects such as submersibles.
Greg Armstrong, TEC Foundation’s VP of Programs and the Executive Director of VA Space Flight Academy.
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Chris Thompson emphasizes “when we work with these kids, and see them learning hands-on how to design, to learn CAD, to cut, to have their own tools that they can operate… it is hugely empowering for them. This is how they learn to become entrepreneurial, start their own business or maybe become engineers if that interests them. It opens up possibilities that didn’t exist for them before.” Thompson’s broader vision is to be able to one day soon reach beyond “just” robotics competitions and education for young students, to being able to help anyone of any age in the community to learn and make.
As Thompson describes the “formal version” of his Foundation’s mission, it’s to
- Inspire and empower new generations of creative professionals and entrepreneurs especially in areas related to science, technology, and innovation.
- Improve public access to modern tools for hands-on education, innovation, and creativity.
But he goes on to say…”What we really mean is..we want to help make more geeks, and give geeks tools!!”