FIRST Newsletter - September, 2011 - Dan Rooney
Early Mentor Talks about Giving Back and Getting More Than He Gives
"MotoCats" was one of 28 teams to compete in the inaugural FIRST Robotics Competition event, held in a New Hampshire gym in 1992
As a mechanical engineer at Motorola Corporation — one of the Founding Sponsors of FIRST — Dan Rooney was asked by his department head if he would like to volunteer to help start a high-school team. Rooney thought it would be fun so he agreed and in 1992 became one of two engineering Mentors for FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) Team “MotoCats.” As such, Rooney was involved in all aspects of the design phase of the team’s robot, including mechanical design and fabrication.
Rooney says he has lots of great memories of FIRST, but in particular recalls standing on the field just after the last match during the 2009 Championship at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. “It was a moment I’ll never forget. Every thing just came together —the hours spent during build season; the work scouting teams; the dedication of the pit crew; the skills of the drive team; and a little bit of luck — to allow our robot to go undefeated through all the preliminary matches, our division’s elimination matches, and on to the Einstein field.”
Rooney says a number of things have kept him involved in FIRST, not the least of which is an understanding and supportive wife. He recalls comments made by FIRST founder Dean Kamen back in the early days that touched a nerve: “I firmly believe in FIRST and its mission. We need to have more students pursue careers in math, science, and engineering. We need to let kids know that it’s okay to think robots are cool.”
Rooney is no stranger to volunteering and the importance of giving back and wonders if he sometimes gets more out of the program than the students he mentors. “If I wasn’t an engineer, I’d probably be in the teaching profession. I really enjoy ‘watching the light bulbs go on’ as a result of something I said or did.” Rooney adds that the friendships he’s formed through the years are an added bonus.
The Mentor says he’s had many rewarding and gratifying experiences during his time with FIRST, but one stands out. It was in Atlanta during the 2009 FIRST Championship when his team gave out their own custom PIT awards. They were a 3-D construction of interlocking 80-20 extrusions, attached to a stainless laser-cut steel plate, with “WildStang” in tie-dye, and a piece of the playing surface behind. Needless to say, the students were very proud of their design and during the introductions of a match with a team that had received one, the award was asked about and mentioned by the MC, then highlighted on the big screen. When Rooney looked at the students’ faces and saw their smiles, he says he “felt the sense of pride in each one. That was a moment that will always stay with me.”
As for the overall impact the FIRST Robotics Competition program has had over the last 20 years, Rooney says, “I never dreamed that FRC would impact so many students. Getting them involved in careers in STEM is great, but what’s even more awesome is the large percentage of students who give back by volunteering. That’s a testament to the many wonderful Mentors,” says Rooney, who adds that the biggest impact of FRC is the nearly $15 million in scholarship money now available to FIRST students.
Although Rooney says he is heartened by the number of students who decide to pursue higher education and/or engineering because of their connection with FIRST, what he finds most amazing is the development of students who are less academically gifted.
“The changes in these students are often quite pronounced and it’s especially gratifying to watch those who are not involved in other school activities open up — all because they are part of an FRC team.”