Staff Support Robotics Competitions

March 18, 2011

Tulane staff volunteers at FIRST Robotics CompetitionWhen she is not coordinating graduate programs at the School of Science and Engineering, you might find Elizabeth Keith volunteering as supervisor for "The Pit," the area where teams of high school students line up to compete at the annual FIRST™ Robotics Competition "Bayou Regional." Accountant Lorraine McGinley's skills come in handy as the tournament scorekeeper and Lab Supervisor Megan Ohar becomes a sort of traffic cop for the day, directing the movement of teams on and off the field.

They are just three of the more than 30 SSE staff, faculty and students who volunteered at competitive FIRST™ events this year. FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) strives 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. At the "Bayou Regional," 38 teams from 7 states competed in New Orleans, one of 49 regional competitions held worldwide. High school students used a common kit of parts to engineer sophisticated robotic units that complete missions to rack up valuable points.

"Just seeing the kids and watching them learn thrills me," McGinley says. "They are having so much fun, they don't even realize how much they are learning."

Ohar feels that the earlier students become interested in science and engineering, the better. "I'm happy to volunteer my time when it exposes kids to these subjects at a time when they can still make the (academic) choices needed," she says.

Keith says she volunteers because it is a great way to give back to the K-12 Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) community and it encourages gracious professionalism and cooperation, two qualities she strives to maintain in her working area. "The Pit is rarely quiet, so you have to be on your toes and maintain a sense of humor at all times," she says.

Keith and McGinley also volunteer at the annual FIRST™ LEGO™ League competition for middle school students, Keith as a judge and McGinley as the tournament scorekeeper. Held every fall, the 2010 event hosted 65 middle school teams which used Legos™ to build robots.

While Keith & McGinley volunteer for FIRST™ LEGO™ League as well, Ohar is part of a mentoring team of Girl Scouts that participate in the FIRST™ LEGO™ League competition each year. The Society of Women Engineers professional chapter sponsors one FIRST™ LEGO™ League team and Ohar volunteers her time to help with that.

Tulane students, staff and faculty have helped orchestrate the FIRST™ LEGO™ League competition for the last eight years. Since 2007, Tulane undergraduates have mentored middle school teams through a service learning class. Last fall, 25 students volunteered with eight local middle school teams, helping them build their robots and prepare presentations on a biomedical topic.

The middle school tournament is held on a Saturday while the high school competition runs from Thursday through Saturday. SSE volunteer faculty and staff presided over the two tournaments, doing their best to keep the teams and robots in line. The SSE allows staffers to take time off to participate in the weekday program.

McGinley has volunteered since 2006 and is looking forward to next year. "I do it for the sheer pleasure of watching these kids have fun while learning," she said. "You would think it was a sporting event by their spirit."

Interested in lending a hand? Contact Annette Oertling at email:

School of Science and Engineering, 201 Lindy Boggs Center, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5764