BCIT hosts high school robotics competition to support STEM workforce

BCIT Mechanical Engineering faculty Andrew Friesen
BCIT Mechanical Engineering Faculty Andrew Friesen

In a rapidly evolving workforce where the use of artificial intelligence and robots are changing how we work, new job and career opportunities related to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields are also emerging, alongside the growing demand for professionals to fill STEM-related jobs. Ensuring students have early exposure to STEM education, such as through robotics competitions, is critical in building a diverse and skilled workforce to support STEM jobs of the future.

Each year, BCIT hosts the VEX Robotics Competition’s Mainland Championship at the Burnaby Campus gymnasium – the competition welcomes high school teams from across British Columbia to compete in an intense one-day robotics tournament.

The VEX Robotics Competition brings science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) skills to life by challenging high school students to design and build a robot to compete against other teams in a game-based engineering challenge. In four 12 feet by 12 feet battle fields, 48 teams will form alliances to launch and maneuver “Triballs”, a cross between a tetrahedron and a sphere, into goals. The winning teams will qualify for the VEX Robotics World Championship, held in Houston, Texas, in April.

The lasting impact of an early introduction to STEM

When you hear the word ‘competition,’ robotics may not be the first thing that comes to mind. The fact is though, robotics competition for high school students have become more prevalent over the years to inspire future generations of STEM leaders and innovators.

BCIT Mechanical Engineering faculty Andrew Friesen is a testament to VEX Robotic competition’s finding that 95% of participants reported an increased interest in STEM subject areas and pursuing STEM-related careers.

Andrew’s passion for robotics began over a decade ago when he founded his high school’s robotics team. He credits his interest in robotics to his Computing teacher at Seaquam Secondary.

“Since I was so far ahead in the Computing class, I got to be alone in the back to explore with the VEX robotics kit, and eventually started a team and went to competitions,” says Andrew.

He later enrolled in the BCIT Mechatronics and Robotics program, and says it was a natural decision at the time. “I already knew I liked robotics, and honestly, the program just sounded really cool,” says Andrew. “I also liked the smaller class sizes and shorter program length, so it seemed like a no-brainer.”

Andrew now teaches in both the Mechatronics and Robotics and Mechanical Engineering programs, but says he didn’t foresee becoming a BCIT instructor, at least not so soon.

“I’ve joked that I’m doing my career in reverse, starting out with teaching, and maybe going back into industry at some point,” says Andrew. “Or I might just stay here at BCIT, I am really enjoying it after all.”

Inspiring and building a diverse generation of leaders in STEM

Although Andrew hasn’t competed in quite some time, he’ll be in the thick of the action as he hosts the upcoming VEX Robotics Competition’s Mainland Championship at BCIT. Andrew says VEX Robotics competitions provide opportunities for students to acquire in-demand skills in a hands-on environment. “It’s one thing to learn about robotics in a classroom or on a computer, but it really is different to design and build a machine,” says Andrew. “The competitions also foster the development of soft skills like communication, problem solving, leadership, collaboration, and time management – in a fun and engaging way.

“It’s also a great way to create an inclusive and supportive environment for diverse students to explore opportunities in STEM, particularly those in underrepresented groups,” says Andrew. “Many students who have an early exposure to STEM education often end up pursuing those careers once they reach post-secondary.”

BCIT has hosted the annual VEX robotics competitions for more than 15 years, and is the only post-secondary institute in BC to regularly host a major robotics competition. Andrew hopes participation in robotics competition will continue to inspire young students to further their education, as well as to become future innovators and leaders in STEM.

Preparing students for cutting-edge and high demand careers

The BCIT Mechatronics and Robotics program offers students a unique combination of courses that blend knowledge in electronics, mechanics, and computer programming. Students are taught the theory and practical skills needed to design and build equipment used in filmmaking, medical devices, autonomous vehicles, and more.

Andrew says students learn the fundamental concepts like electronics, math, and physics, but the real skill building takes place in hands-on situations. “The program is designed to show students how to build a system from the ground up,” says Andrew. “We’re emphasizing real systems building and real troubleshooting, and employers really appreciate this.”

He says troubleshooting is one of the most valuable skillsets students learn, and the same was true back when he was in the program.

“When I would apply for work terms in between semesters during my degree after the program, companies were routinely impressed with my troubleshooting abilities I learned at BCIT,” says Andrew. “It’s something every graduate from the program is able to do, and it’s why they continually get hired into great jobs.”

Andrew’s advice for anyone thinking of applying to the Mechatronics and Robotics program is not to be dissuaded by the subject matter. “Don’t feel intimidated by the subject matter, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to complete this program,” says Andrew. “As long you have a solid grasp of the fundamentals and put in the effort, you will be successful.”

He also says that because of the smaller class sizes, instructors are able to spend more time with students to help set them up for success.

The upcoming VEX Robotics Competition – Mainland Championship takes place on March 2, from 9 am – 6 pm, in the BCIT Burnaby Campus gymnasium (Building SE16). Members of the public are welcome to attend and spectate.

Note to media: If you are interested in interviewing Andrew Friesen, faculty, BCIT Mechanical Engineering, please contact Amy Chen, 778-384-7245.

Leave a comment