3 Questions for a FIRST Mentor

Last week, I caught up with Keith Gargiulo of PTC. Gargiulo is a mentor for FIRST Robotics team MARS WARS, based out of Metamora, Illinois. He’s a passionate advocate for the FIRST program, so I wanted to ask him why and how he got involved with mentoring. Here’s what he had to say:

Can you describe your job as a mentor and explain what it’s meant to you to work with the kids?

Gargiulo: When we first organized the team, the mentors spent some time talking about what it really mean to “mentor.” We were unified in our approach that the team and the robot would be led by the students, not by us.

To mentor meant to be able to check my engineer’s innate tendency to “step in and do” and replace it with the spirit of a guide so that the students found their own way. Balancing sound advice with the need to let the students learn on their own was simultaneously the most challenging and most rewarding aspect of mentoring.

Knowing that the students earned everything they’ve won so far because of their own hard work has been extremely gratifying to see and be a part of. The fact that the student’s success can clearly be ascribed to their work, and not to me or the mentors collectively, means a lot to me.

Why is it important for industry to get involved with programs like FIRST? Why/how did you get involved?

Gargiulo: I graduated from engineering school the year FIRST started. Before that I grew up on and around farms and in a family that largely did its own auto work and even construction. I had parents and grandparents who taught me a lot about mechanics and the fundamentals of engineering, even though I didn’t recognize it as such at the time. It was only when I got to engineering school that I realized some people – even lots of people – did not inherently know how stuff worked and how to fix things.

Much later I was able to look back and realize I was more likely the odd man out. Most young students don’t grow up working on farms and learning how to run and fix machinery. Many don’t have the benefit of family knowledge of auto mechanics and construction to work with and learn from as they grew up.

FIRST fills that gap for students of any background. In the microcosm of build season you gain exposure to every aspect of design, fabrication, and manufacturing, plus a lot more in the areas of budgeting, marketing, research, strategy, effective communication, fair play, planning, collaboration, and compromise. FIRST gives every student the chance to grow up with the hands on skills that make it much, much easier to succeed in STEM fields, but moreover in any aspect of professional or personal life.

Having lived in New Hampshire before moving to Illinois, I had been aware of FIRST for some time. I spent a few hours (literally) with Team 1519 two years ago, but until this year was never a formal mentor.

This time around I ran into a Caterpillar booth at the Illinois state fair in which they had a display of FTC and FRC teams that Caterpillar sponsored. I stopped to talk with the Caterpillar employees and found out that one knew of a team in my newly adopted home town that was trying to start-up. A few emails later and I was connected.

Can you share a specific experience you’ve had with FIRST and/or the team members which sticks in your mind?

Gargiulo: While practicing at regionals, a senior veteran team asked us to try double balancing with them. While successfully double balancing (and later triple balancing), one mentor pulled me aside and said, “I don’t want you to take this wrong, I mean it sincerely and it is a real compliment.” At this point I was pretty sure I knew where he was going. He continued, “You can tell that robot was built by kids.” Later that day when we had the whole team together I made sure the students knew that this is the kind of compliment they should prize.

Another aspect that really sticks in my mind are the ample opportunities for students and mentors to help and serve other teams. As well as we did, in many ways we were barely able to hold our heads above water this first time through. So while we were much more often on the receiving end of help (three borrowed and now dead drill batteries later we finally shave off the last ounces to make weight), looking out for other rookies and trying to step up our help in the future is a real strength of what FIRST engenders in the teams.

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