Rackers Giving Back: How Building a Robot Changed a Life
Rackspace employees have the expertise to solve some of today’s most complex business IT challenges. In addition to helping customers, many also serve our community with their talents. Rackers are encouraged to use their three days of annual volunteer time to give back in whatever ways are meaningful to them.
Growing up, Rackspace software developer Austin Page was not interested in the classroom. The material, homework and instruction just wasn’t interesting to him.
But after discovering the robotics competition of FIRST, a global nonprofit STEM engagement program for kids, the notion of building a robot lit a fire under him, changing the way he approached learning.
Hands-on learning with FIRST
The FIRST (which stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition challenges teams of students, from elementary through high school, build and program robots to compete against each other.
Teams, with help from mentors who work in STEM-related fields, have six weeks to design and build their robot for the competitions, which have the energy level of an NBA playoff game. In the process, students are introduced to array of technologies and science that stretch well beyond typical classroom instruction.
“You’re competing as part of a team trying to build a project that pushes you out of your comfort zone and what you know,” Austin said. “FIRST Robotics really fuels a style of learning that the traditional classroom can’t replicate. When you’re faced with a super tight deadline and have many tasks to complete (programming, project management, fabrication, wiring), you learn so much.”
Building robots kindled his love of technology and shaped his career. He says he learned some of the skills he uses in his job as a software developer while a student competing in First Robotics.
The competition “really opened up my world to a love for engineering and CAD and design that I just otherwise wouldn't have been exposed to. And it really kept me out of trouble,” Austin recalled. “That experience was very powerful to me and very, very positive. It led me into programming and therefore Rackspace and really, the path that I'm on now.”
Giving back to the FIRST Robotics community
When Austin was looking to relocate to Central Texas, one of the items on his wish list was company sponsored volunteer time off so he could mentor FIRST Robotics team. Learning that Rackspace provides 24 hours each year for Rackers to give back to their community, Austin was excited to make the move to the state capitol, which shares his name.
Now, he just had to find a team.
After touring some of FIRST Robotics labs at different campuses, Austin learned of the Howdy Bots, a robotics team comprised mainly of homeschooled students, coached by Evan Marchman. Evan started the Howdy Bots team for homeschooled students and public school students who’s schools don’t field teams so they could compete, too. Austin and Evan hit it off and he signed up to be a mentor.
“[Austin] has had a lot of experience, both as a student and a mentor, and we were excited to have him join us,” Evan said. “He brings a real depth of knowledge [not only with] the competition, but in strategy and in teaching the kids how to bring complex tasks to the kids in a way they can understand.”
Helping shape the next generation of STEM professionals
The 15 students on the Howdy Bots team often practice out of Evan’s garage. There they learn skills like programming, computer aided design, or CAD, to design a 120-pound robot that must occupy a space no larger than three by three by six feet. The garage becomes a hive of activity with each student focused on a particular piece of the robot.
“It's like a ballet, but with a lot more chaos and just craziness; everything's going on at once,” Austin told us. “But through it all the students are learning hands on and they walk away not even realizing what they've been exposed to and what they've learned.”
Students are introduced to very sophisticated technologies, such as CAD and Python, but they also must get hands on with the actual fabrication of the robot. Additionally, Howdy Bots members must learn some "soft" skills as well: they’re in charge of all marketing and fundraising efforts to help defray costs.
Doing all that would be a large task for any team of high schoolers. Adding a six-week competition time limit means decisions and tasks must be done under constraints similar to thos professional product teams often face. Through the adversity, the students are not only learning very technical skills but also how to work together as a team.
That’s what keeps Austin coming back as a volunteer mentor.
“It's just so awesome to sit down with them and see that ‘Aha moment’ when the light bulb goes off and they learned something new for the first time.”
Interested in working with talented folks like Austin? Be sure to check out our jobs listings online. Want to see more examples of how Rackspace is active in our community? Check out our Rack Gives Back website.