Robots build bridges to next generation of engineers

Taylor Eckert came to The University of Western Ontario on the back of a 120-pound robot. Now, the first-year engineering student wants to offer today’s high school students the same ride.

Eckert is a member of the WE FIRST (Western Engineering For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Mentorship Club. In partnership with FIRST Canada, the group offers Western students the opportunity to provide their expertise – and moral support – to area high school students exploring the world of robotics.

Eckert was part of the Laurier Secondary School team assisted by Western last year.

“When I did FIRST it cemented the idea that this was what I wanted to do for a living,” he says. “I knew I was coming to Western anyway, but it was taking part in that, that I knew I wanted to do engineering.”

The Western group was the brainchild of Eugen Porter, Faculty of Engineering technology specialist. In it, he saw an opportunity for his students to get much-needed mentoring experience through robotics.

“Western believes that mentoring high school students would help our undergraduates acquire skills that will assist them academically and in their careers plus inspire high school students to pursue engineering,” he says.

Last year, through an existing robotics club, WE Bots, Porter mentored Eckert and his Laurier team with their FIRST competition entry.

FIRST competitions bring together more than 80 high schools across the country each year. In January, schools are sent instructions for a robot (the tasks are secret until that moment) and given six weeks to build a 120-pound robot using common parts and software. In the past, competitions have included a soccer game and stacking inner tubes.

Like Eckert, WE FIRST vice-president Susan Dang, who in high school participated in the FIRST challenge, couldn’t shake the spirit of competition either.

“I miss the competition so I knew I wanted to continue with it in some way,” says the Ivey business student. “There’s also the business aspect to this, so if I’m able to help other students, it’s a great feeling to give back to whenever you can.”

Eckert knows first-hand the commitment that’s involved. For him, nothing beats the excitement of the actual competitions, held in Waterloo and Toronto.

“This is actually a big deal. It’s overwhelming,” he says. “I played sports all through high school, and the first regionals and championship of (FIRST) were more exciting than any basketball tournament or volleyball game I’ve played in. You look around and it’s amazing.

“When you’re part of it, you can’t help but get hooked.”