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How You Can Gain Engineering Experience as Teens

I’m Bored in the House, and I’m in the House Bored

Okay, so you’re bored in quarantine. You can’t go outside, you can’t find much to do, but you want to do something. Something to spend your hours on, to work so passionately that you get consumed by it for weeks.

For engineers and aspiring high school engineers, finding a project can be one of the most daunting and confusing processes. Sure, you know what to do once you understand what to do courtesy of the Engineering Design Process, but how to pick a topic? How to make use of all of the knowledge that you have in a fun, practical way?

Today, we’re going to explore the many types of engineering education available to high schoolers and how you can get involved today.

General Categories

In terms of the opportunities available to high schoolers, there are a few categories in which they will generally fall under:

  1. Engineering/Robotics Teams -- these are FRC teams, VEX teams, StellarXplorers, often affiliated with a large organization such as the school or the community

  2. Personal Projects -- these will be purely projects you work on by yourself, possibly with a few friends. These will be very DIY-style.

  3. Research -- A mix of the above two. You’ll have a set goal but have much more flexibility in the direction.

Engineering & Robotics Teams

The first, and probably the most prominent, category are established teams and local organizations that aim to promote engineering education and outreach. While the differences between these teams are great, with FRC and VEX teams focusing on building robots that perform a specific task, while other teams such as StellarXplorers go further into space system simulations.

The Ultimate Robotics Team -- FIRST Robotics

FIRST, or “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology”, is a global organization headquartered in Manchester, New Hampshire that aims to inspire students in engineering and technology fields. Though there are multiple branches such a s FIRST Tech Challenge and FIRST Lego League Challenge, the FIRST Robotics Competition, or FRC, will be the opportunity usually available to high schoolers.

Founders Dr. Woodie Flowers and Dean Kamen in 2007

For some background, FIRST was founded in 1989 by multi millionaire inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen with physicist and MIT professor Woodie Flowers to increase the number of students in engineering careers. It was aimed to combine the excitement of sports with the potential of science and technology. Over the decades, it has expanded, holding dual Championship events in Houston and Detroit in April at the culmination of every season.

To outsiders, the FIRST Robotics Competition may seem like a poor representation of true industrial engineering, and merely a functional prototype that may or may not be acceptable in professional conditions. And they’re completely correct -- though teams strive to increase the quality of their robots, the time and resources required to build and code a full quality-controlled robot is simply impossible for high schoolers. Instead, FRC offers the closest experience to “real-world” engineering and allows students to learn from industry engineers and experts directly to sharpen their skills in preparation for college.

Additionally, the FIRST Robotics Competition opens up the administrative aspect of the engineering industry with team divisions focused on business, marketing, funding, and public outreach. Famously, teams have built fully functioning prosthetic arms, ventilators, and wheelchairs for underprivileged populations, using their skills not just to win awards on the field but for the betterment of civilization.

FIRST Robotics in 2020, image courtesy of Team 2637

Every season, lasting around six months, the FIRST Robotics Competition releases a game challenge along with a theme for students to design robots to. Games have included shooting wiffle balls, manipulating milk crates, and stacking totes and pool noodles. Teams generally follow the Engineering Design Process in designing their robots, iterating upon their designs and eventually competing them on the field. Teams that perform exceptionally well qualify for the World Championships held in Houston and Detroit where the best teams in the world, as well as FIRST’s corporate sponsors and partners, showcase the cutting edge of technology.

2018 World Championships in Cobo Center, Detroit

If you’d like to know more about FIRST Robotics, please see the end of the article.

“I Build My Pets”

The next type of project available to high school students is to simply conduct their own personal projects. It can be anything -- I’ve seen and helped people build a robotic dog, a singing fish mantlepiece, or even a modified flamethrower. The possibilities truly are limitless.

However, when getting started on these projects, one must always consider the cost. What materials will you need? How much time can you devote? What outside help, if any, will you need? Depending on your scope, all of these answers will vary. You’ll likely need access to a laser cutter or 3D printer -- the benefits from insanely quick turnaround and iteration is priceless. You’ll need a control board, and you’ll need all sorts of fasteners to keep your creation together.

Driver and control board from a personal project

Your first project will certainly not be perfect; it may not even succeed. You might be stuck in the design phase for weeks. It all depends on your skill, your resources, and your scope -- but I can tell you from personal experience that seeing your creation spring to life at 4am is one of the most rewarding experiences.

Research: The Dignified Approach

Finally, research opportunities are always an option for those seeking to increase their experience in engineering and technology. Though slightly different in that it will often require you to carefully document your process and present your results at the end, the Engineering Design Process still applies and you’ll likely be designing something that, in the end, you can be proud of.

Here at IgniteMinds, research opportunities are offered that range from designing immunoassay analyzers to designing a low-cost ventilator that min-maxes performance and cost. The process is quite different from designing a FRC robot -- we have to be much more careful and deliberate in our decision making as the research will affect the “real” world much more directly than the performance of a FRC robot.

In Conclusion

In the end, I hope this article served to show that there really isn’t a single direction that you need to take if you want to pursue engineering during high school. There’s opportunities I haven’t mentioned, including internships or more niche activities like BattleBots. (Yes, my friend built a BattleBot as a high schooler. Find out more here).

Yes, high schoolers built this.

However, if technology or engineering is in your future, then I strongly encourage you to look at these possibilities. Not only will it get you started on the lifelong journey of being an engineer, but it can take your high school experience to a whole new level.

Best of luck, everyone.

Interested in FIRST Robotics?

Contact me directly -- I can help you look and contact FRC teams in your area, as well as get you started on some resources. Email me here: -- FIRST’s official webpage

See what FRC teams are doing -- Local FRC team from Peninsula High School.

Explore FRC Team 2637’s 2019 and 2020 Robots.

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