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Building a FIRST-class organization

A robot built to toss wiffle balls is emblazoned with stickers and MIZ-ZOU logos.

FIRST stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,” and the organization is responsible for putting on regional and national robot competitions in order to build interest in STEM in kids anywhere from elementary school to high school. Photos courtesy of Taylor Latham.

Taylor Latham’s interest in engineering led to her participation in FIRST Robotics while in high school in Olathe, Kan. That interest grew, leading her to come to Mizzou and major in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. And her affinity for the FIRST program drove her to give back to current and future participants, which is why she began the Mizzou FIRST Alumni Association.

FIRST stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,” and the organization is responsible for putting on regional and national robot competitions in order to build interest in STEM in kids anywhere from elementary school to high school. A few years back, Latham was one of those kids.

“When I was a junior in high school, I knew I really wanted to be on this team because these teams are treated like sports teams. … Wanting to be an engineer growing up, this was a perfect avenue to go down,” the now-Mizzou junior explained. “I could join this team that was a large team, working together with a lot of people to get this great experience and at the same time, build a robot.”

Taylor Latham — with red hair, a denim jacket and striped skirt — poses seated for a photo on some steps.

Taylor Latham decided to recruit fellow FIRST program alumni at Mizzou in order to support the Columbia Educational Robotics Foundation, and the Mizzou FIRST Alumni Association was born.

Latham’s involvement with robotics eventually landed her a role last year working as a mentor with the Columbia Educational Robotics Foundation (CERF), which provides resources and programs in order to inspire local students to become future leaders in STEM fields. The organization’s chair is Mizzou Bioengineering Professor Kevin Gillis.

CERF had a lot of buy-in and involvement from educators, local university and college faculty and parents, but they were lacking in college-age mentors for the participants in the various programs, including the FIRST Lego League for students in grades 4-8 and FIRST Tech Challenge for middle and high school students. Latham decided to recruit fellow FIRST program alumni at Mizzou in order to bridge that gap, and the Mizzou FIRST Alumni Association was born.

“Our idea was if we could find more students like me who had a great experience with FIRST, building robots and gaining knowledge, we can build a group of students that can give back to the community by mentoring,” she said.

Latham said the association has grown to about 50 members in total. A group of FIRST alumni took a team of Columbia high school students to a recent competition in Kansas City as a tune up before the main high school competition process begins in January. While there, the Mizzou FIRST Alumni Association had a booth to show off their organization, including a robot the mentors had built as part of FIRST’s “Robot in Three Days” event, where mentors build in three days what the high school participants have six weeks to construct.

And, while there, the group took the time to explain to high school students the wide array of opportunities the MU College of Engineering has to offer. Recruiting FIRST participants to Mizzou serves a dual purpose — it benefits the university by bringing in bright engineering students while also providing more FIRST alumni to hopefully keep the association going for years to come.

“As students graduate from their program, that’s how the sustainability will build,” Latham said.