“We want to inspire students. We want to inspire kids. We want to let people see the excitement of robotics.”
“I really enjoyed sharing my passion for engineering and seeing if we could get kids excited about the STEM fields and particularly women and underserved groups who weren’t as exposed.”
“So it’s really important for all of us to let every child get exposed to that, to make sure they all get to see the excitement of being in some STEM field.”
“I think bringing in speakers to the classroom who bring it alive is really important and sharing those experiences and letting them see where they will use tech and then making them aware of the tech around themselves.”
“Getting a student inspired with STEM can be very, very easy with little experiments at home.”
“This is all very exciting for us, but when you see a kid hold a robot, and a kid can actually drive a robot at one of these expos, there’s nothing quite like it.”
Q: So why don’t we start by hearing about National Robotics Week? How did it get its start? And what’s it all about?
A: So back in 2009, iRobot and a group of other companies and educational institutions decided that it was worthwhile to bring attention to robotics. It was a rising industry and we knew that it was a great way to engage students in the fields of STEM. So they actually approached Congress. We got a bill through Congress to authorize National Robotics Week, and we held the first one in April, 2010.
The impetus behind it is twofold. We want to inspire students. We want to inspire kids. We want to let people see the excitement of robotics. But when you do that, and you bring all these robotics, expos, and exhibits and companies together, you start showing the strength of the industry. When you see how across the United States, we just have so much happening in robotics, that’s when it gets super exciting.
Q: I bet. So about your background, would you tell us a little bit about what you do for iRobot and what led you to become an engineer?
A: Sure. So I am a civil engineer by training and education. I worked in engineering for about seven or eight years doing design work. My dad was a civil engineer. It looked exciting from the time I was growing up, he would involve me in projects, and I knew that it was something that I would enjoy. Then fast forward, I found myself on both sides of the table, of not only design, but was using more of the permitting and land use side, making sure projects could get built, but all throughout that, I was doing engineering outreach.
I really enjoyed sharing my passion for engineering and seeing if we could get kids excited about the STEM fields and particularly women and underserved groups who weren’t as exposed. So luckily I got the job at iRobot to run our STEM program. We’re one of the few companies with dedicated staff in education and in STEM. And as part of that, we manage, founded, and organize National Robotics Week.
Q: Exciting. And that was during your time there?
A: I came in when it was about two or three years old. I picked it up from there. We grew the program when I came in, it was about 25 events around the country. When we were last able to have actual events with actual people, we were around over 350 events in all 50 states.
Q: Wow, so it really does go beyond one event, or one single big event. It sounds widespread.
A: It does. It’s very grassroots, iRobot is the cheerleader. We’re organizing it, we’re getting things on the website, we’re doing a lot of the PR around it, the social media, but the events themselves are at the grassroots level. In some ways, that makes it a lot more genuine because it means everybody can participate and events could be anywhere. That really spreads that exposure.
Q: Cool and so you were exposed to the concept of engineering at home, but why is it important that STEM concepts are included in today’s curriculum and educational opportunities?
A: You’re absolutely right. I was fortunate I had a dad who was a civil engineer. I knew what engineering was. I had gotten to experience it. It was funny, back a number of years ago, a few of my female friends got together who were engineers and we all asked, “Well, why, how did you get here?” And everybody had a parent or a close relative that was an engineer.
Yeah, we can’t count on that. That’s not a good way to educate students. So it’s really important for all of us to let every child get exposed to that, to make sure they all get to see the excitement of being in some STEM field. That’s a lot of what we do at iRobot, is we bring that out into the schools, into educational groups. We visit Girl Scouts, we visit Boy Scouts. We’re really trying to show students where they could be in the STEM fields and the variety of careers. Robotics Week is doing the same thing because a student who can attend an event, and events are everywhere, they’re able to talk to those people and they’re able to see, “Oh, there’s a piece of this puzzle that makes a robot that I might enjoy.”
Q: Yeah, and you mentioned the variety of careers. I’m sure that, based on the age of the student, there may be a very narrow scope of what they may understand to be the kind of job or career that a STEM education could potentially lead to.
A: They don’t know. What we really want to make sure is they see the opportunities they may have. They don’t know when they’re in third grade that we have graphic artists at iRobot and we have finance people, and lawyers, and accountants, as well as the engineers, as well as people whose job it is to reverse engineer and take stuff apart.
Q: Cool. That’s a cool one. That’s a cool one for younger kids to find out about, when you think about some of the toys, LEGOs and some of the fantastic toys like that, that’s interesting. How can education leaders help students to be successful in learning STEM skills? We talked about it being brought into the schools. So at the education leadership level, like the school leadership level, how can they facilitate and help students have that opportunity?
A: I think engendering that real world experience. Everybody hears the student who asks, “Well, why do I have to learn algebra?” Or, “When am I ever going to use this?” I think bringing in speakers to the classroom who bring it alive is really important and sharing those experiences and letting them see where they will use tech and then making them aware of the tech around themselves. I think you can do that in the home, you can do it in the classroom, but so many students have a smartphone. It’s a piece of their lives, but do they think of it as a piece of technology? And they probably don’t. They take it for granted that when you tap the screen, something happens, but when you tap the screen, not only something happens on your phone, but something happens in your house, or a light turns on. So if you can start talking about that with students, that that isn’t just magic, that people made that happen, it becomes more real for them. I think that’s critical.
Q: Yeah. So applications and examples in the home, even, and in the schools. Yeah, that makes sense. So you’ve talked a little bit about the goings on of National Robotics Week, but how does it exactly help introduce students to STEM and the career possibilities? What goes on that connects the students to that?
A: Sure, so we’ve got events everywhere and particularly this year. We’ve changed it around because everything has to be virtual and we’re saying, “You know what? Anybody can participate.” Participation for us could be go home and watch a video about robots, or read a book, or somehow take something apart. When you start doing that, now we’re getting everybody more aware. So National Robotics Week is really about spreading that awareness and then letting them see the variety of robots. That’s the other piece is that you ask the average student, what’s a robot look like? And they start describing something with two arms and a metal head, and it’s got a square box and it marches. Then we show them something like Roomba, which is a round thing that sits on your floor and is a robot and they start to broaden their horizons on what could be a robot.
Q: So you mentioned parents at home and how they can even just be talking about the technology that exists within the space of the home. Are there specific activities they can do? Or where should they go looking for those kinds of activities that they might incorporate?
A: We’ve shared a lot of activities on the National Robotics Week website. If you go under our resources, we have posted all whole bunch of videos and books, actual hands-on activities they can do. Then we link actually over to a couple other websites, including the iRobot education website, that again has more activities. Some of them are really simple. Getting a student inspired with STEM can be very, very easy with little experiments at home. As I mentioned, take something apart. When you give a kid a screwdriver and you allow them to explore, you’ll see magic happen. We do that in classrooms, we bring robots out and we let them take them apart and to know what’s inside and to see all the pieces, and just the act of being able to use tools is incredibly important for students. Think about going through school, when did they actually hand you a screwdriver?
Q: Yeah. Probably not unless you’re embarking on a CTC path or something like that.
A: And that’s a tool, you need that tool set, literally, to survive.
Q: Absolutely, absolutely. So how can students and school districts get involved in National Robotics Week this year?
A: So head on over to our website, nationalroboticsweek.org, check out some of our resources, see what looks exciting. See if there’s an activity that you want to run. We have virtual coding, all sorts of things. Again, make it as simple as you need to. If it’s about having the students write a short essay, what robot would you design? What problem would you solve with a robot? Maybe it’s coding something. Maybe it’s watching a video. We have a few videos posted there and then let us know.
Key to us, is fill out the form on the website and let us know that you’re participating so that we know where everybody’s seeing robots. It was a little bit easier in the past when we had actual in-person events, but we still want to know.
Q: Yeah. Hopefully next year you might get back to in-person or more in-person.
A: I hope so. That’s part of the challenge. This is all very exciting for us, but when you see a kid hold a robot, and a kid can actually drive a robot at one of these expos, there’s nothing quite like it. When we can get back to that, that’ll be even more exciting.
Q: For sure. Do you have any favorite events, or activities or anything, any of your favorites that you’ve seen occur as part of National Robotics Week in the past?
A: It’s interesting. When you go to pick your favorite event, a lot of times it’s the results that happened after. You get the email that was like, “I went to this thing and it was so cool.” But I really love the smaller events when we’ve had kids who participated for instance, in FIRST LEGO robotics. So they built a LEGO robot, but then they take it to the library to show it off. Here you’ve got seven-, eight-year olds talking about their robot in front of a group of people, that is just so much fun. We’ve had events that have over 10,000 people. We’ve had events with three people. I like the ones where it’s a self-initiative. So taking it to the library. We had another FIRST robotics team go to the local mall and show off their robot. Again, it just normalizes robotics, which has been really, really exciting for us.
Q: Yeah. It’s really twofold, they’re learning presentation skills even in the thick of it, talking about something that they’re excited about, that’s great.
A: You can’t do engineering without drawing it and without presenting it. So it really wraps together all the skills.
Q: Cool. Thank you so much for joining us on this episode, Lisa. I appreciate it and we’re excited to see everything that goes on and you mentioned that feedback that you’re asking for. So it’ll be interesting I’m sure, to see where are folks doing this. Where are they participating? So it begins the second week of April, is that correct?
A: Second week of April, we use both weekends. The form is super easy. Just tell us, “I’m reading a book at home” or, “I’m going to watch a video tonight” and that’s all we need to hear.
Q: And the website again is?
Lisa Freed is the STEM Program Manager at iRobot.
Lisa manages iRobot’s STEM initiative, focused on engaging students in STEM education across grade levels and demographics. By visiting classrooms, bringing students to iRobot and providing job shadow experiences, the program inspires students in robotics and STEM fields. On average, 50% of iRobot’s employees participate in the STEM program, reaching over 60,000 students. iRobot is also the founder and lead organizer for National Robotics Week, which hosts over 300 events in all 50 states annually. Lisa has been working in STEM outreach for over 25 years including 10 years as the New England Regional Coordinator for the National Engineers Week Future City Competition. She is a registered Professional Engineer and LEED Accredited Professional.
Lisa holds a Civil Engineering degree from Union College and a Masters in Landscape Architecture from Harvard University. Lisa was the recipient of the 2015 WEPAN Women in Engineering Champion Award recognizing an individual employee in industry for their volunteer contributions to STEM education and in 2017 was named a Woman Worth Watching in STEM by Profiles in Diversity Journal. Outside of her professional life, Lisa has a son who is a recent elementary education graduate from Endicott College, and enjoys paddling her Stand Up Paddleboard or training her Bernese Mountain Dog.