Engineering the Future Through STEM and Robotics

by Ashleigh Webb
Caterpillar Inc.

Caterpillar encourages students to pursue STEM careers by investing in numerous programs and initiatives.

Caterpillar is dedicated to building a global engineering talent pipeline, which is critical not only to the company’s continued global growth and competitiveness, but also to the success of our communities. Caterpillar encourages students around the world to pursue science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers by investing in STEM programs and initiatives through sponsorship, volunteering and mentorship. A few of the many ways we support STEM and robotics outreach is through our partnerships with organizations that foster fun and exciting ways to get students involved in technology challenges. 

FIRST in STEM
Caterpillar supports workforce readiness in STEM careers through a strategic partnership with FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). The mission of FIRST is to inspire younger generations to become science and technology leaders through engagement in exciting, mentor-based programs. These programs build the STEM skills to stimulate innovation and foster well-rounded life capabilities, including self-confidence, communication and leadership. Caterpillar is a proud sponsor of several FIRST programs—including the FIRST Robotics Competition in which high school students design, build and program a workable robot from scratch. 

FIRST refers to their robotics program as the “ultimate sport of the mind,” aimed at engaging students with the idea that science, math, technology and engineering challenges can be just as exciting as sports. In fact, FIRST founder Dean Kamen refers to STEM programs as the “only sport where everyone can go pro.” The FIRST Robotics programs provide students with real-world engineering challenges such as designing, testing, brainstorming, project management and teamwork. The students are guided by mentors, typically engineering professionals in the workforce, including many from Caterpillar.

Caterpillar began supporting FIRST in 2005 by sponsoring 10 FIRST teams in Peoria. That year, more than 50 employees volunteered more than 5,000 hours with 200 students in the Peoria area. Since then, Caterpillar has expanded its support to sponsor more than 200 FIRST teams around the world, contributing 800 employee volunteers, donating over 100,000 hours, and directly reaching 2,500-plus students annually. Today, Caterpillar’s engineering workforce includes many FIRST alumni serving as mentors, leading teams and supporting their own children that may be involved in FIRST programs.

“As an engineer, I think it's critical that we develop interest in and excitement about science and technology at early ages,” says Caterpillar Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Tom Bluth. “As a company, Caterpillar has a vested interest in building a strong pipeline of future innovators. Our purpose is… to help our customers build a better world. Strategic partnerships with organizations such as FIRST help us grow the next generation of engineers, scientists and technologists that will fulfill this purpose.” 

Partnership with NASA
Another way Caterpillar encourages students to get involved is through its partnership with NASA. Caterpillar’s relationship with NASA began in 1969 when Cat diesel engines supplied the power for the NASA tracking stations around the world. Not only were these stations vital to tracking the missions, they made it possible to see Neil Armstrong’s first step and hear his first words from the moon. 

Each year, college students across the country gather at Kennedy Space Center with a mining robot that they designed, built and tested to compete in the NASA Robotics Mining Competition (RMC). The competition requires the robots to cross the simulated terrain of Mars, excavate Martian soil and deposit the soil into a bin within 10 minutes. Function and operation of these robots are analogous to Cat Command products (Command for Dozing, Command for Loading) with the competition having an increased focus on fully autonomous operation (Command for Hauling). 

Through this partnership, we develop relationships with emerging talent with an interest in not only the mining field, but autonomy and automation, as well as construction. The NASA RMC aligns well with Caterpillar engineering talent needs: participants apply the technical knowledge gained in a classroom environment to real-world, hands-on engineering challenges. 

Shaping Our Future
Engineering impacts every aspect of life—from the way we communicate, work and travel, to how we maintain our health and entertain ourselves. Each day, through the practical application of science, technology, engineering and math, engineers work to improve our lives and help shape our future. Today, Caterpillar has more than 11,000 engineers and technologists developing innovative solutions for our customers. Continuing this pace of innovation requires more students to get involved in STEM programs offered by FIRST, NASA and others with the common mission of encouraging students to join the STEM workforce. 

There is an emerging correlation between students who participate in FIRST teams prior to college and students who participate in NASA's Robotic Mining Competition once they are in college—which leads to why NASA is also a supporter of FIRST. Technology industries and academia benefit through their collaboration to prepare the next generation of engineers and scientists, shaping technology that addresses the needs of a changing world. iBi

Ashleigh Webb is a communications representative for Caterpillar’s Innovation and Technology Development Division. For more information or to get involved, visit firstinspires.org or nasa.gov.

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