There is excitement in the air and giddy laughing to stave off nerves, and proud mentors are waiting to lead off the historic Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. This kickoff to the official start of the holiday season is joined by some new leaders this year: robots.
As the official starters of the parade, kids from high schools across the nation will be showing off the robots that they've created. FIRST, which stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, is a nonprofit organization founded by inventor Dean Kamen. As part of FIRST, five teams of kids and their mentors will use their robots to cut the starting ribbon and blow confetti throughout the route in New York City.
The kids received the parts for the robots — with no instructions — and they and their volunteer mentors worked tirelessly for six weeks to create these engineering marvels. It was an accomplishment larger than the kids could imagine, and now they get to show off their hard work to millions of fans on the streets of New York and in homes everywhere.
I was honored to get a little time with a few of the kids and their mentor to ask them some questions before they spent the last day before the parade soaking up the city and the excitement. As impressed as I am with their ability to create these robots, I was more impressed with their maturity and poise in talking about the benefits of FIRST and the impact it has had on their lives and on the community they are so proud to be a part of.
Meet Danielle Patriarcia (a high school senior and director of engineering of her team's robot), Kaithlyn Abulencia (an alumna member of her team) and Cathy Schultz (their mentor).
SheKnows: How did you all become involved in FIRST?
Danielle Patriarcia: I started off just taking photos of the projects that were being created my freshman year. I was fascinated by it and decided to join my sophomore year. I then joined the engineering side and really loved it. So, this year, I was honored to be the director of engineering! I really liked leading the build and working with the team.
Kaithlyn Abulencia: As a junior, I wanted to know more about what was going on with FIRST. I was fighting depression and was looking for some help with that. I knew some things about engineering, but I wanted to know more. I found a team and a community that helped me deal with my depression, and I also found a place where I could grow and dream about my future.
Cathy Schultz: I have been involved with the program for about five years. My son was involved with it, and I thought it was an amazing program. So I joined in and have loved every minute of it. I love the lessons it teaches, the teamwork it promotes and the excitement the kids get from it.
SK: What challenges did you face along the way that most impacted you?
DP: Building the arms really took a lot of time. We had to get them to shoot out Frisbees, and working on that was really difficult. So having to learn time-management skills to be able to get everything done was a challenge. My personality leads me to put things off until the last minute. Through this, I learned that time management is important in everything I do.
KA: I had a challenge with the public-speaking part of the project. We had to raise our own funds as part of this challenge, and so I had to really deal with that. I learned real-life skills that will impact me in "the real world" — like how to contact people and how to talk to them. I also learned that building relationships and community is key.
SK: What would you tell kids about the FIRST program and why they would love it, too?
DP: I would tell them that it leads to opportunities they might not otherwise have. They can learn amazing things that will only benefit them in their lives, and it will help them make new friends and learn a skill set that is valuable.
KA: I would stress that this is a mission of friends — that it will inspire their interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and show them how valuable those things are for the future.
SK: Cathy, how would you say that kids benefit from FIRST?
In so many ways. The program is open to anyone. So, as Kaithlyn talked about her depression earlier, I think that FIRST allows kids who may feel like they have no place of their own find a community. Seventy-five percent of the kids are from inner-city schools, and a lot of them have the challenges of teen parenthood, gang relationships and more. This is an opportunity for them to break the cycle and really see that everyone has a future.
SK: How excited are you guys to start the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade?
[Giggling and anxious deep breaths are heard.]
DP: I am so nervous! I just don't want to mess up and stumble over my own feet or anything. I am so excited and cannot wait to be in it!
KA: I am so nervous and excited, but mostly because I don't know what to expect. I mean, no one my age gets to do this kind of stuff — like lead the parade — so there is a rush in knowing that I get to do something unique.
CS: I am super excited. I am so proud of these kids. Watching from the beginning to now and being able to be a part of this great accomplishment by these kids is overwhelming and wonderful.
After the interview, I sat back for a while and drank in the magnitude of what these kids have achieved with this program. The confidence and pride in their voices are evident. FIRST has created something that kids as young as kindergarten to high school can take part in, learn from and develop real-life skills and confidence from. I cannot wait to watch the beginning of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and see these five teams of students who have worked so hard reap their well-deserved reward!