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Coach Doug Wildes knows that no matter how hard you train, sometimes the difference between winning and losing comes down to a toss of the ball. Even when it’s a robot doing the tossing.

That was the case at this year’s annual FIRST Robotics Competition. Wildes, who doubles as a physicist at GE Global Research in Niskayuna, New York, has been mentoring a 100-strong team of students from Shenendehowa High School in nearby Clifton Park. They call themselves The Rocketeers, and they had designed, built and programmed a robot to carry gear across a field, climb a rope and shoot balls into a barrel. While most teams had focused on the first parts of the challenge, the Rocketeers added a ball-shooting mechanism in the hope that it would give them an advantage.

They won an early match when their robot successfully landed three balls in the target. But it wasn’t enough to win the competition. They lost in the semifinals when a power connector fell out of the radio transmitter in the middle of the match, cutting contact with the machine. “We were dead on the field,” Wildes says.

Above: By day, Doug Wildes is a physicist with GE Global Research. He also mentors robotics students from Shenendehowa High School in Clifton Park, New York. Top: Wildes’ team, The Rocketeers, were among 1,394 teams from 39 countries who competed in this year’s FIRST Robotics Competition in St. Louis. Images credit: The Rocketeers/GE Reports

The students took the loss in stride, but Wildes and Molly Stieber, an Edison engineer at GE Global Research who is also a FIRST mentor, were disappointed: “We were kicking ourselves for not being more thorough and missing problems that we could have prevented,” he says.

Such are the emotional highs and lows of competitive robotics. The Rocketeers were one of 1,394 teams from 39 countries who competed in the increasingly popular competition this year. The brainchild of inventor Dean Kamen, FIRST — For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology — calls itself “the ultimate sport for the mind.”

The Rocketeers with Doug Wildes. Image credit: The Rocketeers/GE Reports

Wildes got involved when his daughter started on the team eight years ago. He has been one of the lead mentors for the last five. His daughter is about to graduate from college, but Wildes still has no plans to quit. “The enthusiasm and dedication of the students keeps me going,” he says.

He uses his 30 years of experience at GE to help walk the students through the various stages of the challenge, from strategy and design to building to programming the robot. “For example, we go through a priority setting discussion in which we think about which features on the robot would have high rewards and which would have high risks,” he says. “It’s just like what we do at GE.”

Wildes is one of over 200 GE employees who have dedicated thousands of hours every year since 1998 to mentor FIRST kids as young as 6. Some of them, like Stieber, were themselves FIRST participants when they were in school. She credits FIRST with leading her into engineering. “Going into high school, I didn’t want to do anything that had to do with math,” she says. “After my second year on the team, I was like, wait a minute: I can make a career out of building robots and doing cool stuff like this? I’m in.”

Stieber hopes to inspire other young girls to go into engineering. When she joined her high school FIRST team, she was one of only three girls.

Many of the girls she mentors today ask her about the best ways to handle the boys. “I tell them that, every so often, you get that one guy who’s like ‘Girls can’t do any of that stuff!’” she says. “But I always make sure to tell them that the culture is changing, and that young women like them joining STEM careers will only make things better and better.”