John Deere not only believes the future is about innovation and technology, but we also believe in those who will shape that future.
To create that brighter future for today’s students, the company signed on as a FIRST LEGO League Global Sponsor for the 2019-2020 season. An international program for students 9-14 years old (9-16 years old outside North America), FIRST LEGO League gives students the chance to apply STEM concepts to solve a real-world problem.
Known as a robotics event for the next generation of innovators, leaders, and problem solvers, FIRST (For Inspiration & Recognition of Science & Technology) embraces “gracious professionalism” — the act of respecting others, being a good sport, and sharing what you learn.
Launched in 1989 by renowned inventor Dean Kamen, FIRST has grown from what started out as a one-school, one-weekend event to participation by more than 600,000 students ages 6-18 in more than 100 countries with four different FIRST programs.
John Deere began lending both financial and volunteer support in 2011 as part of the newly launched global STEM program, John Deere Inspire. FIRST is the top volunteer activity within Deere as employees log more than 18,000 hours annually as FIRST mentors and event volunteers through the Dollars for Doers program.
The company’s financial support is nearly $1 million annually, providing grants that help more than 6,000 students on more than 700 teams in five countries worldwide.
“John Deere is partnering and investing in FIRST because we believe it can influence the next generation of leaders and innovators,” said Pat Barnes who works in John Deere’s Corporate Citizenship & Foundation Group, overseeing global youth education support. “FIRST makes a significant, positive impact on students. This is both in terms of the life and STEM skills they learn and the confidence they develop to support their future success regardless of career path.”
Barnes said all it takes is about five minutes inside a FIRST event to understand what all the excitement – and commitment – is about.
“The students really embody the spirit of gracious professionalism,” he said. “FIRST provides that unique combination of attracting and inspiring a large group of amazing students and volunteers. Deere employees are so giving of their time because they witness the value FIRST provides and because, as volunteers, they see the value in serving.”
Barnes, who is responsible for John Deere’s youth education strategy, investments, and partnerships provided an update around the FIRST program and Deere’s commitment to it.
Q: What’s new and exciting for the 2020 season?
A: In terms of John Deere’s partnership with FIRST, we plan to continue our strong support for teams in 25-plus home communities in five countries and further expand globally. This includes adding support for FIRST LEGO League teams in Argentina, Mexico, and France. For FIRST LEGO League, we’re excited for the new 2019-20 CITY SHAPER Challenge that’s focused around building a better future for everyone. We look forward to seeing the innovative projects the teams design to address key issues with buildings and public spaces in their communities. This includes developing designs with things like infrastructure, transportation, sustainability, accessibility, and even natural disasters in mind.
Q: What opportunities arise when an organization grows this quickly?
A: With our increasing support for teams, Deere and other FIRST sponsors are finding the biggest opportunity is providing mentors for all the teams that have requested one. About 50 percent of the teams that are approved for a John Deere grant have one or more employees as a mentor. However, for about 30 percent of the approved grants, the teams don’t have a mentor and want one. So far this season, this equals more than 100 teams who have requested one or more mentors. It is important to note that you don’t have to be a Deere employee to be a mentor for a FIRST team. We make teams with students who are underserved and underrepresented a priority.
Q: You mentioned there are some perceived hurdles that prevent employees from becoming mentors or volunteers at FIRST events. What are they?
A: There are misconceptions around being a mentor. That’s something we are working to address.
There are four key misconceptions or “myths” we see regularly. They are:
1) John Deere FIRST teams and events can only be supported by John Deere employees. Not true.
FIRST events, which occur typically on weekends and at night, allow volunteers from all walks of life – ranging from high school age students to retirees. Family members and neighbors are all eligible to volunteer with FIRST, which is often the case, including many couples who mentor teams together. Some roles such as judges do require an adult.
2) Mentors must have engineering or technical backgrounds. Not true.
Teams need both technical and non-technical support. Technical support includes design, fabrication, and troubleshooting for mechanical, electrical, and software. Non-technical support includes marketing, fundraising, project management, communications, team building, web site support, and social media help.
3) Mentors need to have prior experience and have all the answers. Not true.
Mentors are individuals from all backgrounds and disciplines who work with students to share their knowledge and guide them through the season – not do the work. FIRST mentors and coaches are not expected to have all the answers. They learn with the students. Students do the work while the mentor provides them the best environment to learn by doing, which includes failing. Mentors empower kids with a sense of accomplishment.
4) Mentoring takes more time than available for most employees. Not true.
The time that a mentor spends supporting a team depends on their availability, and what support the team needs. This can vary by team and FIRST program. Ultimately, teams appreciate any amount of time mentors can contribute whether it be on a weekly basis during the season or helping share subject matter expertise on an as-needed basis, which sometimes is only a few meetings. For some teams, support can be provided virtually.