Life after FIRST:
What 4 Years in FIRST Taught Me About Confidence, Leadership, and Finding Passion
Part 2: Being a (Female) Leader in STEM
Teaching students to be leaders is the most significant thing that FIRST does. In learning to be a leader on my team, I realized the strength and capability of a well-led group with a goal. I learned the necessity of integrity and the essential selflessness that holds a team together. Together, my team brainstormed, set big goals, and carried those goals to a completion that often astounded us with its swiftness and depth.
In the summer of 2014, our team created a new department that we summed up with the ambiguous heading “international relations.” The main goal for the department (which quickly became my department when leadership roles were assigned) was to carry out a STEM mission-- aka, carry out significant STEM outreach in an underprivileged, under-reached part of the world. We wanted to travel internationally within the next five years.
Exactly one summer later, nine students from Walton Robotics boarded a plane to Sao Paulo, en route to an underserved community in Pindamonhangaba, Brazil. Just one year after setting our five-year goal, we delivered a 5-day free STEM camp for 37 under-privileged children in Brazil. We had nurtured our idea, designed a challenging but sustainable STEM curriculum for young students, tested the camp projects ourselves, and formed a powerful partnership with one of our sponsors, Novelis, to help us navigate Brazil and fund the trip.
Leading the Brazil initiative (with my partner-in-crime: s/o @ Jennifer Benton) taught me that leadership is so much more about the process than the product. I know, it’s cheesy, but the process of planning and delivering a STEM camp on a different country in a foreign language taught me that leadership is a lot of small successes that are independent of what happens in the end. Being a leader is reminding teammates that their work has value even if the sixth attempt at building a potato clock fails. It’s pushing the quiet kid to present for the group, listening to the way someone wants to teach their project even if it’s not your way, and being able to let go when a pet project fails enough times (in my case, the pet project was a deceptively simple-seeming bottle rocket, and “enough” was after the 20th-or-so tragic attempt). It’s knowing when to remind everyone to stay on track and when to celebrate. Leadership is so much more about the people than what you end up accomplishing; your work is to help each team member become their best self, and it’s that much better if you end up teaching Brazilian kids how to build rockets in the process.
As a female going into a STEM field (I’m planning on majoring in computer science at Stanford), being a leader through my team was especially valuable for me. FIRST empowers students, especially females, to embrace their roles as leaders and become role models for younger students. My team created a program called GirlsFIRST- in essence, a series of events including robot scrimmages on a full field, discussions, and panels with women in STEM careers, all led, run, and attended by girls in FIRST. GirlsFIRST provided the unique opportunity for us to chat with young women on other FRC teams in a setting where we could directly address the gender imbalance in STEM fields and talk about if/how it shaped their FIRST experience. The next GirlsFIRST event is actually planned for this October, and you can sign your team up here. I learned a lot from these girls and from my time as programmer and leader on our team. Many important things have already been said about the state of women in STEM fields (like in articles like this or this or this), so I’ll highlight things I learned in my experience.
There’s a lot to be done when it comes to balancing the gender ratio in STEM. But FIRST is providing a way to build communities of people driven to change the culture for women in tech and inspiring young women to become leaders in what they love, whether it’s in STEM or not, and that’s pretty awesome.
Stephanie Niu is a recently-graduated alumnus of Walton Robotics, FRC team 2974. She currently attends Stanford University as a computer science major. If you are interested in blogging for FIRST Ladies, click here to sign up on the schedule.
Be a guest
Do you want to be a guest blogger for FIRST Ladies? You can write about a topic of your choice! Please email us the completed blog and track your creation using this link: