Canon Solutions America-sponsored FIRST Robotics Team #3932 Dirty Mechanics will mark its 12th year in operation this fall.
Located in Boca Raton, Florida, the team comprises students from a dozen schools within the South Florida region who work as one team to compete in the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition. Volunteer mentors, such as Canon Solutions America Principal Engineer, Dave Ferguson, work tirelessly to give back to their community by offering technical guidance regarding running a robotics team, developing soft skills, increasing self-confidence, and improving communications and leadership capabilities.
Dirty Mechanics was established in 2011 as a team of students from only one school who competed exclusively during seasonal competitions. Since then, the team’s reputation has helped it expand across multiple area high schools and even includes home-schooled students. Eleven volunteer mentors, who possess engineering and business backgrounds, guide the team that proudly boasts a two-to-one student-mentor ratio and a one-to-one ratio of boys to girls in all positions on the team.
The 2023-24 team will start this fall in preparation for a campaign culminating with the FIRST Championship, scheduled for April 17-20, 2024. However, before that level of competition, the students and mentors will work closely together to help establish and develop skills in science, engineering, and technology while learning to work in a team environment—gaining knowledge that can benefit students far beyond a robotics competition.
“One of the benefits of this program is teaching soft skills, such as problem-solving and dealing with difficult situations,” said Ferguson, who helps lead the team that operates out of St. Andrew’s School in Boca Raton. “Many towns offer athletic programs, which is good for health and confidence, but there are not many STEM programs that allow for avenues where students can go for skill development, camaraderie, adrenaline, and competition, except for FIRST Robotics.”
Team participation includes much more than designing and building a robot for competition. Members conduct grassroots fundraising for this large undertaking before seeing their creation compete on a prestigious stage. The journey helps improve technical and social skills for all those involved.
Last spring, Dirty Mechanics crafted a four-foot robot dubbed “Sergeant Sparky,” which they used to compete in the FIRST Championship in Houston, Texas, against more than 600 teams in front of more than 50,000 spectators. Additionally, Team #179, Children of the Swamp, based in South Florida, receives support from Canon Solutions America to help fund travel, supplies, and more. The 16-time regional winning team is primarily comprised of students from Suncoast Community High School and Inlet Groves Community High School. However, it also has several students from other high schools throughout Palm Beach County. Team mentors include engineers from Belcan, Lockheed Martin, EDF, Pratt Whitney, and retirees.
The team sees extensive commitments made by both students and mentors, who run workshops and provide tutorials for skills such as programming, soldering, wiring, and instructing on the proper use of power tools. Children of the Swamp has made community engagement a core component of its mission, participating in food drives that have collected more than 1,400 pounds. The group’s technical skills have also assisted the Boca Raton Rotary Club in configuring Wi-Fi routers and extenders for local students in need of bringing the internet to communities without it.
“As mentors, we are compelled to give back, and our thought process is, ‘If we don’t do it, who will?’
We want to keep going, teaching practical skills and developing positive attributes that will help the students in their lives,” Ferguson said. “If we can give them direction and confidence in who they are growing into, it is a gratifying sight for us volunteers.”
Team members have parlayed their experiences with Dirty Mechanics into success in both collegiate and professional settings. The team boasts a 100 percent high school graduation rate, with 97 percent continuing their education at the college level and 90 percent of the group enrolled in STEM fields. Alums have secured jobs in tech leaders like Canon, and 15 alum members have returned to serve in mentor roles, passing on the skills they learned both on the technical side and from a business operations standpoint.
“Besides STEM, the team focuses on business, marketing, and entrepreneurship. If the students want to become business leaders and owners, they need to know how to do it,” Ferguson said. “We focus on the business side while simultaneously troubleshooting and solving problems individually and as a group, which can even be more challenging. It is amazing to see students return to the program after achieving professional success, now looking to help future generations excel in science and technology.”
The opportunities for both learning—and teaching—have afforded students such as team co-captain Rebecca Levy, a senior at Donna Klein Jewish Academy in Boca Raton, the ability to engage in a community outside of a traditional classroom and work with peers beyond her school. It also has offered the chance to take what she has learned and pay it forward. “For the past four years, the team has helped build my confidence,” Levy said. “Starting with my sophomore year, I served as one of the safety captains, and now, as a senior, I’m one of the co-captains, and this experience provided leadership opportunities that I would not have been able to find elsewhere.”
Levy has used the team’s offseason to hone her skills, focusing on robot and computer-engine design while mentoring the undergraduates to ensure a smooth transition once she and her fellow seniors graduate. “I want to take what I learn and help pass it on so that once I leave, the team will still have the skills,” she said.
Levy, who has already started amassing college credits by taking summer classes through Stanford, started a FIRST LEGO League program for middle schoolers to introduce the next generation to robotics. “When I was in middle school, the team was just me and my friend, who is on the [Dirty Mechanics] team now, so when we graduated, the team was gone. We were inspired by Mr. Ferguson and created another robotics team, but [wanted to] have it be more of a community team than just our small school. We had students from other middle schools, and we brought these kids together to have the opportunities we did. We just wanted to allow them to see if they like engineering and what the team can provide. Not everyone knows about FIRST, and it’s not easy to find mentors, so it’s nice to give students the chance to be part of a team.”
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