The First FIRST Robotics Team in Brunswick County
Somewhere in the depths of Brunswick County Academy on a rainy Friday night, high school kids wield hammers, saws, and computers. Electrical wires run across the room and a wall of boxes have been set up, one with a face drawn on. This is the meeting of the high school megaminds of the first Robotics Team of Brunswick County.
A group of high school students from around the County meets every night of the week. Their goal is to build their own robot. In March, this team will take its uniquely crafted robot to compete in the FIRST Robotics competition.
FIRST is a nationwide organization that encourages kids to embrace invention, science, and technology. Starting in elementary school, FIRST provides programs and curriculum educators can use to encourage students to embrace STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) lessons.
Claire McLaughlin is the Brunswick County STEM Council Founder and Chair and this past school year she set her sights on the FIRST program. After attending a robotics competition in Myrtle Beach, McLaughlin was hooked by the energy and excitement.
“It really is amazing,” McLaughlin said. “Everyone is cheering and it is exciting! It is so much more than the competition, too. It is teaching students teamwork, presentation skills, good sportsmanship … all while having fun.”
When McLaughlin returned to Brunswick County, she set the wheels in motion. Each high school in the County was asked to send three girls and three boys for the new team, based on teacher recommendation. The high school team started with 30 members and today still has around 18 active participants.
The high school team received their challenge, the theme, and goal of the competition at the beginning of January. FIRST changes the details each year and every team across the country receives the details at the same time. They have six weeks to design, build, and implement a robot they feel will win. This year, the theme is Steamworks:
McLaughlin, who had received some good advice from other local Robotics leagues anxious to help, lined up mentors to help her team. Engineers and professionals from Duke Energy, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and Brunswick Electric arrive at the team building days to advise students with practical tips.
The students are divided into teams within their group: electrical, coding, building, and outreach. Not only are the team members given a unique opportunity to learn detailed and advanced skills, they also get to have a team of their own.
“Not all kids are into sports, and that’s ok. It’s cool that I get to come here and have this awesome team. We work together,” Robotics team member Kyre Smith says.
But McLaughlin didn’t just bring the FIRST program to the high schoolers, she also introduced programs for the younger students. One of her big goals is to get more girls involved in STEM activities and extracurriculars, and she knows it’s important to hook them at early ages.
So she worked with the County to found other FIRST leagues. There are now FIRST LEGO Leagues at Leland Middle School and Waccamaw School (Waccamaw even advanced to the State competition). Bolivia Elementary has a FIRST LEGO League Jr club that has been very popular.
McLaughlin really wants to get the community involved in the FIRST leagues throughout the county, for she has seen the excitement the kids have for the curriculum. She wants to grow and expand the program, and she certainly can’t wait to take the group of high schoolers to their first competition.
“There is a lot of local pride in this team,” McLaughlin said. “We are excited to offer opportunities here for our residents and we want parents to ask, ‘How can I get my kid involved?'”
McLaughlin also knows that where there is innovation in the schools there are more future engineers, which in turns attracts businesses and people to the area. The effect of strong STEM extracurriculars and innovative activities is wider than what the individual kids receive.
With the intent to get the community engaged and to establish Brunswick County’s reputation as a center of engineering and invention, the Brunswick County STEM Council put together the first RoboCon.
Held at Brunswick County Community College at the end of last year, there were over 200 people in attendance from four different counties and it received local news coverage.
“It was so cool to walk in and see how many people were excited. Everyone was just having so much fun,” Smith says.
Of course, starting FIRST teams comes with a pricetag. Equipment, tools, gear and space all cost. And Brunswick County businesses have stepped up by giving not only resources but time. Brunswick County FIRST leagues are sponsored by Argosy Foundation, American Nuclear Society, Archer Daniels Midland, Duke Energy, Brunswick Electric, White Funeral and Cremation Services, and South Brunswick Islands Rotary members. They have advisors from the Brunswick County Chamber of Commerce, Brunswick County Animal Control, Leland Veterinary Hospital, Ocean Isle Beach Sea Turtle Protection Organization, and Ocean Isle Veterinary Hospital.
For the students themselves, there is a lot to be gained as well. Millions of dollars in scholarship monies are awarded through these competitions and colleges recruit FIRST team members heavily.
But, ultimately, the opportunities they have to learn skills that will last them through life is what really matters.
“We get to learn all sorts of things, like how to code, which is really awesome,” student Patrick Yacullo shares. “Plus, we get to learn so much more, like teamwork.”
McLaughlin is hoping that with enough community support and donations, they can expand the Robotics program in Brunswick County to touch all the schools and show the world how innovative Brunswick County kids are.
Anyone interested in helping can contact Claire McLaughlin at email@example.com.