Kerry Thompson is an educator with 25+ years of experience teaching science and mathematics to students in grades 6-12 as well as in community college. She is also the lead mentor and founder of the FYRE Robotics Team Number 5480, Reno’s first FRC (FIRST Robotics Competition) team founded in 2014 and sponsored by the University of Nevada, Reno Innevation Center Makerspace.
Thompson has been a member at the Innevation Center since 2018, though most other members have probably never met her. That’s because Thompson, her fleet of community-based mentors and their high school FRC (FIRST Robotics Competition) team are only here for a few months out of the year, and only after hours. When they are here, it is full work mode. During the FRC build season from early January to the end of February, the FYRE Robotics Team Number 5480 uses the Innevation Center’s Makerspace six days a week for four to eight hours per day building their robot. Their build season will look different this year with social distancing requirements and remote challenge opportunities, but students are excited for the competition season that kicked off Saturday, Jan. 9.
Potentially in their 2021 season and definitely in their 2022 season, FYRE will be able to use the new K-12 Robotics Center|University of Nevada, Reno as they design and test their robot creations. Being developed with the support of Tesla and the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada (EDAWN) and located in the University’s Southside Studio downtown, the K-12 Robotics Center is anticipated to open in the first quarter of 2021.
Thompson moved to the Reno area in 2013 and was immediately approached by Nevada’s FIRST coordinators to start a community FRC team in Reno given her five years of experience as an FRC mentor in Florida. Having been here for only a few months, Thompson wasn’t quite ready to jump back into FRC, but the commitment of students eager to take on FRC after growing out of FIRST Lego League (a competition for grades K-8) changed Thompson’s mind, and she agreed to lead Reno’s first FRC team which competed in the 2015 season.
Given the time and money needed, FRC is a massive commitment for both students and mentors, and Thompson has been doing this for the last 12 years. So what exactly is FRC and why does Thompson and her team of mentors come back year after year, sacrificing two months of their lives outside of work to help kids build a robot?
FRC stands for the FIRST Robotics Competition which is the premier competition hosted by the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) organization; their smaller competitions include the FIRST Lego League and FIRST Tech Challenge which uses a 18 inch cubed robot compared to FRC’s four-foot-square behemoths.
“FRC is a varsity sport of the mind,” says Thompson. “It’s a real-life engineering challenge that gives you too little time, too little money, and too big of a challenge to try and solve.” Founded by Segway and home dialysis system inventor Dean Kamen, FIRST’s goal is to change the culture of the United States to make engineers and scientist as cool as athletes. This ethos shows in the competitions – they are huge events with scores of spectators, loud music, cheering teams, singing, dancing, and more.
“Giving students the opportunity to be a part of an FRC team is a life changer [for them]” says Thompson. She’s had a student that went from being too shy to speak to winning statewide awards, and a student who got to meet a Nobel peace prize winner through their work in FIRST.
“It’s not just about the robot,” says Thompson. “They learn how to budget, they learn how to talk to adults, they have to do presentations, they have to do fundraising. They have to learn how to work with each other under stressful situations and with time constraints.”
Learning all of these skills while still being in high school is life changing for what they can accomplish in their futures. As robotics grows in the region, Thompson reiterates the importance of FRC teams being student driven so that students are truly invested in their work. Mentors are really there to ask the right questions, and help students learn to use design tools available.
Going into 2021, Kerry has two critical asks of our community for FYRE to continue to thrive – financial sponsorship and a permanent home for their team. Their team exists year-round, so they need a space to permanently store their robots and supplies and to hold informal meetings in both the on and off-season. Participation in FYRE is completely free to students, and they are currently raising $40,000 to fund their ability to participate and go to competition this year and next.
This story was written and contributed by Crystal Harvey, assistant director of the University of Nevada, Reno Innevation Center.