FIRST Robotics is a program for young students that centers around a competition in which teams must design, program and build a robot to complete various tasks. It is also a program that helped inspire Stepanie Wightman, Engineering Operations Program Manager at Path Robotics, to go into engineering. Matthew Wolfe sat down with Stephanie to talk about her journey from FIRST Robotics to Path Robotics.
Matthew Wolfe: Hey Stephanie! As a fellow engineer who got started in FIRST, I’m so excited to have this conversation. Let’s get right into it. Why did you join FIRST robotics?
Stephanie Wightman: I joined FIRST because I saw a video of my high school’s FIRST robotics team during my middle school technology class. I was just so excited by watching the robots move around. Prior to that, I had always been part of engineering groups throughout school, so, in a way, I was destined to join FIRST.
Matthew Wolfe: What was your time with FIRST like?
Stephanie Wightman: I really loved my time with FIRST. In FIRST, I used practical applications of what I was learning in my classes. I was on all of our teams from the business side, leading up our design of the robot. I also got to lead our scouting team. FIRST was like a small company that we, as students, got to run.
Matthew Wolfe: Why is FIRST robotics so important?
Stephanie Wightman: FIRST helped me figure out what engineering would be like in the real world. FIRST Robotics is important to young people because it teaches practical skills to those who are looking into the science and technology fields. I’d further say that FIRST is excellent no matter what field someone is interested in. This is because of what I mentioned before about how FIRST is essentially a small company. We had to create a website and t-shirts – the people dedicated to that learned design skills. We had other people building our animations, which teaches basic programming. When you are working with another group within your team, you’re learning the real-world skill of negotiating between departments.
You learn a lot in school, but how do you truly understand and retain that knowledge if you don’t know its purpose? FIRST Robotics provides an opportunity to practically apply what is taught in school.
FIRST is also great as a place for students to take their first steps into figuring out what they want to do with their careers. Choosing a career can be a tough question for students. FIRST gives a chance to try things out.
You always see FIRST being promoted as “FIRST leads to STEM”. When, in fact, it’s so much more. There are opportunities to be a part of a scouting team to watch all the other robots and categorize and figure out who we wanted to partner with. That’s not engineering; that’s business analysis. We had people who focused on the Chairman Award. The Chairman Award puts a strong emphasis on being involved in the community. Those involved were focused on mentoring Lego League Junior teams.
Matthew Wolfe: I love that! FIRST is, in a lot of ways, a student’s opportunity to figure out what they want to do. Which is our segue into our next question. Fast forward to today, you’re at Path Robotics. How did FIRST Robotics lead you to Path Robotics?
Stephanie Wightman: FIRST’s Chairman Award was the connection. It asked the question, “how are you involved in the community?”. That stuck with me. I had avoided going into robotics for so long because most of what you see are people trying to make robots that replace humans.
That’s why I joined Path, because we’re not going after something that human welders can do easily. There’s a vast skilled labor gap. Welders are retiring, but the average retirement age keeps going up because there’s less people to backfill them. We’re going after the welds that are hard for humans to do or take a physical toll on the body.
We’re making robots that assist humans, not replace them. FIRST’s Chairman’s Award was a primer for thinking about how can I do engineering for the good of my community.
Matthew Wolfe: Why should young people look at a career in engineering or robotics?
Stephanie Wightman: For me, being an engineer is a mindset, rather than a career. It’s how you think. Are you focused on problem solving or being analytical? Are you constantly staring at processes and thinking of ways to optimize it and improve it? If you’re answering yes to those questions, you might be an engineer.
With Robotics, you get to physically see the results of your work. The code you’re working on translates to movements on the robot. You get to see your work pay off when a weld is completed.
The other great thing about robots is that you get exposure to many different types of jobs. We have several types of engineering here at Path and they’re very connected. I work with our CV, hardware, software and robotics engineers, and just about every other department.
When you’re a software person and the robot doesn’t work, you’re ready to look at the code, whereas hardware engineers can go check all the parts, everyone has a different perspective. At Path we do all of that in parallel.
Matthew Wolfe: Any closing comments?
Stephanie Wightman: I’d like to close with a question that I ask myself often at Path. How are we helping people? For me, that’s what is most important in my career. My history has been in writing code. I’ve moved over to focusing on our processes and our programs. Now my biggest focus is on how do we optimize the entire system. I am excited about all the different ways that we’re able to help our customers, our internal teams and hopefully Columbus and the community.
About Path Robotics
Path Robotics is an Artificial Intelligence company focusing on the manufacturing industry.