Michael Hodson is a mechanical engineer with a minor in electrical engineering who works at John Deere as a software developer and has been mentoring for a decade.
He’s 24 years old.
“I won’t lie — my background might be part of how I got my job at Deere,” Hodson said. “During my first round of interviews, we talked about my mentoring, and I pulled a lot of stories from robotics because those are some of the most interesting projects I’d ever worked on.”
He’d approached Deere because the company played a big role in some of his earliest memories.
“My grandpa had a Deere riding mower,” Hodson recalled, “and as a kid I spent a lot of time with him.”
The memory is a little bittersweet for Hodson, though. The last time he spoke with his grandfather was to tell him he’d interviewed for an internship at Deere.
“It’s a sad story, but it’s still a fond memory for me,” Hodson said. “We each had John Deere belts with John Deere buckles. I went to my final Deere interviews straight from his funeral.”
Carrying on a Legacy
Just as his grandfather mentored him, Hodson has mentored others.
“I’ve always loved teaching,” Hodson said. “I strongly believe in the adage that ‘to teach is to learn.’ You don’t fully know something until you can teach it to other people.”
He discovered his love of mentoring while in middle school, helping other students with homework. He continued mentoring in high school, again helping with homework, but also with grading papers. He kept it up through his four years at Purdue University, even taking a couple education classes to hone his teaching skills.
Hodson’s love of robotics followed a similar timeline. He became interested in programming and automation at a young age. “Mowing the lawn sounded terrible,” Hodson recalled, “so if I could learn how to make robotics programs, then I could get out of those kinds of tasks.”
He began competing as a high school student in FIRST events. FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is a global youth organization committed to inspiring young people to be science and technology leaders and innovators. Later, he sought out a FIRST program in college.
At Purdue, he also mentored a FIRST Tech Challenge team at a local high school for seven of his eight semesters.
What about that eighth semester?
“I was studying in Ireland,” Hodson said. “I took an English course on learning and literacy, so we worked with a local elementary school and a homework club.”
But when the school found out their American guest shared a fascination with robots, Hodson was promptly transferred from homework club to robotics club.
Enter the Winter Soldiers
Following two summer internships spent working on combines as a member of Deere’s Advanced Harvesting Automation Technology Development team, Hodson graduated from Purdue and began working for the company full-time in 2017 as a software developer.
At the time, he wasn’t looking for more mentoring work. He wanted to settle in. Get used to his new job and new surroundings.
But Deere does a pretty good job of making mentoring hard to resist.
“We connect with young people globally through our mentors,” explained Pat Barnes, global program director for STEM & Youth Education at John Deere. “Through our global STEM youth program, John Deere Inspire, and our partnership with FIRST, we provide students with relevant work experiences that will help them with their educations and their lives.”
Barnes noted that Deere supports the second largest number of FIRST teams in the world — over 700. “Many students need our mentors’ help with technology, such as software, hardware, and robotics,” Barnes said, “but many also need a mentor’s help with presentations, communications, fund-raising, and other non-technical aspects of being engineers. Overall, we have approximately 300 employees who mentor FIRST teams.”
Hodson wasn’t one of them. At first.
But he was working on the Crop Harvesting platform at Deere’s Product Development Center in Silvis, Illinois, when a team of high schoolers stopped by to show off its robot.
“The Winter Soldiers,” as the students styled themselves, “had built a fully articulated arm-wrist on a Lazy Susan that didn’t have any wheels,” recalled Hodson. “They were controlling each joint individually, which was phenomenally interesting.”
He volunteered on the spot to be a mentor for these robotics prodigies. And “prodigies” isn’t an overstatement — their robot-design discussions include references to machine design, kinematics, reverse kinematics, vector-loop equations, and the Newton-Raphson Method.
The mentoring has paid big rewards, the kind you get from helping people, of course, but also the kind you get from winning. Time spent working with the Winter Soldiers has paid plenty of both, not just for Hodson, but also for Jagadish Vasishta, Paul Yaklin, Caleb Meyer, Sravanthi Vedula, and Madhavi Pushpala, the other Deere employees who help mentor the team.
At the recent state-level FIRST competition for Iowa, the Winter Soldiers claimed the Inspire Award for the second consecutive year. The Inspire Award is the competition’s highest honor and goes to the team that best exemplifies what engineers should be, including innovative and collaborative. These characteristics are important in Hodson’s job.
“To be very good developer, you have to go to the field to test, you have to work with different teams, and you have to be very interactive with the requirements and the feedback,” he said.
Competition is More than Just Robots
FIRST events are very competitive, but by requiring students to perform community outreach, work with engineers in different fields, and work with other teams, FIRST also helps instill many of the “soft skills” that, according to stereotypes, are not engineers’ strong suit.
“FIRST is trying to inspire kids to go into science and technology,” Hodson explains, “but they’re also trying to create good engineers.
“With FIRST, you learn how to communicate, and shockingly enough,” Hodson added wryly, “communication is a very large part of engineering, so the competitions are a really positive experience for the kids.”
Hodson noted that some of the students he works with are already “leaps and bounds” ahead of the people he competed with in college with their ability to communicate.
But of course they develop hard skills, too. “Some of the students who come out of robotics programs can work a lathe almost as well as anybody I’ve ever seen in a Deere factory,” Hodson enthused. “It’s absurd.”
In late April, the Winter Soldiers, their mentor, and their robots headed to Detroit, Michigan, which along with Houston, Texas, hosted the 2019 FIRST Championships. The five-day competition matched 1,400 teams (about 30,000 students) from over 70 countries that had earned their way through qualification, state‑wide, and regional tournaments to gain a spot in the championships. The events drew over 75,000 attendees.
How did Hodson’s charges fare?
The Winter Soldiers were among the six teams that were finalists for the Think Award, which recognizes teams for “Removing engineering obstacles through creative thinking.”
Hodson takes a lot of pride from his mentoring and the success of the Winter Soldiers. “I think the competition helps out the students a lot,” he said, “and, honestly, I think it makes them better engineers.”