Dedicated FIRST Mentor Secures Grant Money to Fund Teams and Creates Brighter Futures for At-Risk Students
The small town of Umatilla, Ore. is home to just over 7,000 people. Until recently, students in Umatilla had very limited, if any, access to hands-on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) learning opportunities like FIRST — that was until Umatilla Superintendent of Schools, Heidi Sipe, took matters into her own hands when she discovered FIRST while testifying at a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions hearing with U.S. Senator, Jeff Merkley, of Oregon.
Heidi was testifying about changes she believed were necessary to the No Child Left Behind Act when she heard another group sharing the story ofFIRST. She then requested Senator Merkely help secure funds for FIRSTin rural areas. As soon as the hearing came to a close, former FIRSTRegional Director for Oregon, Deb Mumm-Hill, seized the opportunity to introduce Heidi to FIRST and encouraged her to get involved.
“I convinced Heidi to start a FIRST team, so she pulled her math teacher husband from coaching the football team and tasked him with starting aFIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) team,” recalled Deb. “With the help of JCPenney and NASA, we got them going.”
Now in her third season as a Mentor for FRC team 4125 “CONFIDENTIAL,” Heidi reflects on her students’ accomplishments, and how their involvement with FIRST has positively impacted their lives.
“I’ve seen students shift in their thinking and grow as individuals because of FRC,” said Heidi. “I want as many students as possible in Umatilla to gain the confidence, knowledge, and experience provided through FIRST.”
Umatilla High School is home to team “CONFIDENTIAL,” and the school serves one of the poorest student populations in the state. Umatilla school serves a minority-majority population, and nearly 70 percent of the 400 students are Hispanic and many speak both Spanish and English. Heidi recognized the challenges these students faced, and took action to ensure that these students had the opportunities to not only realize, but showcase their many talents and abilities.
“Kids in rural, impoverished communities have all the talent and none of the access,” she explained. “FIRST gives them the access to dream new dreams.”
Against all odds, dreams became reality for Team 4125 when they qualified for the FIRST Championship in the spring of 2013.
“While we wanted our kids to do well, we didn’t expect them to qualify for Championship in their second year of competition,” Heidi admitted. “We were quite honestly shocked. We only had about two weeks to raise $15,000. We were overwhelmed, but moved forward on faith…and it all came together.”
Determined to raise the funds needed to go to St. Louis, Mo., the students on team “CONFIDENTIAL” held a community yard sale. The framework was simple: people stopped by the yard sale with items for the team to sell and picked up (and paid for) a few items on their way out. While it was unlikely that a yard sale could rake in $15,000, the students hoped it would at least make a dent in the amount of money needed to get to the FIRST Championship.
However, it wasn’t long before the team saw an outpouring of support from the members of their small town.
A local baker donated cupcakes, a local restaurant donated a percentage of all their sales to the team, and a community farmer even donated the proceeds from the sale of a cow.
The generosity of the Umatilla community didn’t stop there.
The local bus company donated a bus to transport the team to St. Louis, and all of the team Mentors got their licenses so they could drive the bus and save on the cost to hire a driver. In addition to the bus, a local Ford dealership loaned the team an SUV for the trip to haul the rest of their gear.
“A friend of a friend of a friend located wonderful people in St. Louis for us and they helped us find a church where we could camp and save on hotel expenses,” said Heidi. “We exceeded our fundraising goal and learned the impact FIRST can have on a community firsthand.”
The kindness of the Umatilla community didn’t cease once these funds were raised, either. When team “CONFIDENTIAL” left town, they did so with a full police escort from the police department. When they returned home, a group of senior citizens were in the parking lot to give the kids a warm welcome and help unload the bus.
“Our entire town still bursts with pride at the success of our team, and they’ve come out to help volunteer and work alongside the kids at all levels,” said Heidi. “We don’t have a lot of STEM professionals in our community, but we most definitely have people who are committed and willing to help the kids in our community become the next big names in STEM.”
After witnessing the success of Team 4125, and how the experience had enriched the lives of her students, Heidi was inspired to pursue a 21st Century Grant, a federal grant worth $2.1 million, to help expand FIRST programs in her community, and extend these opportunities to all students in grades K-12.
“We’re very excited about the grant,” Heidi said. “In short, we owe a lot of the success of this grant to FIRST and the successes our FRC team had in the 2013 season. We had built some industry connections through FRC, and those connections morphed into partnerships for the grant.”
Heidi wrote for the federal grant to implement STEM after-school for grades K-12, using FIRST as her model. She was awarded the grant money, which she used to fund nearly 30 new FIRST teams and create a comprehensive afterschool program, which included access to FIRST programs as well as homework help, Culinary Chemistry, Kinder Exploration, drama class, and even a night school program for adults, among other offerings.
“Helping students understand that their future does not have to look like their present is extremely important to me as an educator,” explained Heidi. “In our community, we have many talented and intelligent kids who simply don’t understand the breadth of careers that are available, let alone, aspire to attain success in those careers. STEM fields are rapidly expanding and I fear our kids will be left behind if they do not start to see the importance, and fun, of a STEM career.”
For others interested in bringing STEM programs like FIRST to their rural community, Heidi offers the following advice:
“Just do it. Be fearless and trust that it will all work out, because it will,” she affirmed. “The kids have innate talents that seem to reveal themselves in the midst of build season. Trust their knowledge, and use a lot of YouTube! Our kids learned how to weld aluminum by watching YouTube. It may not be perfect, but it works.”