For years, FIRST Robotics programming has been the spark igniting Wisconsin students’ interest in STEM.
Jeff Fenstermaker, a senior architect with GE Healthcare in Waukesha, has been part of the effort to inspire more people to pursue those professions since he first began volunteering with FIRST Robotics in 2008.
FIRST, a national nonprofit organization based in New Hampshire, designs several programs that engage students in grades K-12 in STEM activities, including robotics competitions, Lego Leagues and tech challenges. It’s operated in Wisconsin for over 20 years.
Fenstermaker first got connected to the organization by volunteering as a mentor for a robotics team at Mukwonago High School. He went on to chair the event planning committee for FIRST’s Wisconsin regional competition at the UWM Panther Arena, which annually convenes hundreds of high school students who compete in a series of challenges with a robot they have built and programmed. Fenstermaker also served on the executive advisory board for FIRST in Wisconsin as a representative of his employer, GE Healthcare.
When the COVID-19 pandemic put a pause on regular FIRST programming locally, Fenstermaker and other members of the board began exploring the idea of forming a new nonprofit – one that would offer more local control.
A steering committee representing industry professionals, universities and STEM organizations is now preparing to launch a new nonprofit organization, Wisconsin FIRST Robotics, Inc.
Establishing the new local entity, which is seeking 501(c)(3) status, allows leaders more flexibility in executing its programming and raising funds, said Fenstermaker, who is chair of the new organization. Many supporters, for example, would rather their dollars go to a locally run organization than a corporate entity located across the country, he said.
“Now, … as our supporters provide funding, we can better allocate that funding to areas and teams in most need of that help, based on our knowledge of our own community,” Fenstermaker said.
One of the top priorities is to expand Wisconsin FIRST Robotics’ reach, particularly to underrepresented students. Currently, about 2.5% of high school students who have access to FIRST programming participate in it. Leaders want to grow that number 20-fold, he said.
“The real benefit of programs like this is to build up a pool of STEM talent,” Fenstermaker said. “Companies need and want that talent, they want them to live in this part of the country so they have that recruiting base.”
For Fenstermaker, it’s meaningful to be a part of developing that pipeline.
“It’s really rewarding to be able to connect with young kids and bring better awareness to why they’re learning what they’re learning in school,” he said. “I think one of my most proud moments was teaching basic calculus concepts to a ninth grader to help him understand how to control a robot and watching his eyes light up when he finally understood.”