From LEGO League To Software Engineer

Tuesday, August 29, 2017 - by Scott Fiedler
If your child expresses interest in a school robotics program, take action. For one curious little girl, it turned out to be the first step on the path to a career as a software engineer at a FORTUNE 500 company.

Like most 11-year-olds, Laura Ayres thought building a robot would be “really cool.” But when her mom asked if she’d like to be part of a middle-school LEGO League robotics team, she wasn’t sure.

“I was more interested in music and computer games,” she recalls. “Plus, there weren’t any other girls on the team.”

It didn’t take Laura long, though, to get hooked.
“After I proved to the boys that I had a brain, it was fun,” she says. “I’ll never forget the first time we actually got Ed, our robot, to do what we wanted him to do. We were able to back him up when he hit a wall, which doesn’t sound like much. But for a bunch of sixth and seventh graders, it was an incredible feeling—to realize that you’d built something that actually worked.”

Today, Laura is a software engineer at Unum, a Fortune 500 insurance company, but sometimes she gets a similar feeling, she says with a laugh.

“When I’m trying to solve a software problem, it can feel like I’m hitting my head against the wall, and I have the same sense of accomplishment when I finally figure it out.”

Looking back, Laura can see how the dots connected.

“Building robots and participating in competitions sparked a practical interest in technology,” she says. “I enjoyed it, and I discovered I was good at it. If I could program a robot, I figured I could program other things.”

After high school, Laura majored in computer information systems at Shorter University in Rome, Ga. Her college experience culminated in a software development and research internship with the Department of Homeland Security in New London, Ct. Two months after graduating, she went to work as a software engineer in the enrollment section at Unum’s corporate headquarters in Chattanooga.

“If it weren’t for robotics and the confidence it gave me to pursue a technical degree, I’m not at all sure I would have had any of those opportunities,” she says.

Cheryl Ayres, Laura’s mother and an engineering support specialist at TVA, has good memories of Laura’s involvement in middle and high school robotics, too. She coached the team and enjoyed watching team members grow both academically and personally.

“It was so rewarding to see the kids find their niche and to watch them bond as a team,” she said. “The kids thought it was all about the robots, but I could see what else they were getting out of it. Robotics promotes STEM learning—it gets kids excited about science, technology, engineering and math—but it also develops life skills. It teaches kids about teamwork, leadership, problem solving, time management, and so much more.”

Cheryl’s own story underscores the importance of encouraging middle and high-school girls to consider technical careers.

“Growing up, I just assumed I’d be a secretary. I liked math, but the thought of an engineering career never entered my mind,” she recalls. “After I graduated from college, I took a job in the clerical pool at TVA and ended up doing a lot of copying for engineering groups. My boss must have seen some potential in me because he encouraged me to go back to school for an engineering aide position. I decided to give it a try and was surprised to find that I really liked it. I got my engineering degree several years later—and a new position planning and scheduling power plant maintenance outages at TVA.

“If I’d had an opportunity as a middle school student to be part of a robotics team, it would have made my path to becoming an engineer much easier. That’s why I agreed to coach Laura’s robotics team. I wanted to expose the next generation to career choices they may not have considered otherwise. I wanted to help kids see the opportunities a technical degree can open up.”

Giving kids in the Tennessee Valley a brighter future is one of the reasons why TVA supports robotics programs, says Denise Watts, Community Relations manager at TVA.

“Studies clearly show that participating in robotics motivates kids to do better in school and empowers them with the skills and confidence needed for future success,” she says.

A 2016 study by the Hamilton County School District in Chattanooga found that students who participated in robotics programs displayed significant academic improvement—as much as a 30 percent difference—in Tennessee state math, science and language arts test scores versus students who did not participate in robotics.

But TVA has the Valley’s future in mind, too.

“A key part of improving economic prosperity, part of TVA’s mission of service, is training our future workforce,” Ms. Watts says. “Science, technology, engineering and math skills are in great demand right now and growing in importance, so supporting robotics programs is also a way to develop the workforce of the future for TVA and other Valley industries.”

TVA supports robotics programs in over 500 schools, serving over 10,000 students across the Valley. In the 2017-2018 school year, TVA will sponsor more than 60 robotics competitions. In addition, about 20 local power companies support school robotics programs and competitions.

“Education and STEM learning, specifically, is a key focus area for TVA's Community Relations efforts,” says Ms. Watts. “We’ve spent years working with schools, teachers, coaches, and community leaders to provide opportunities for students to get involved in robotics programs at an early age. Early exposure increases the chance that students, especially young girls, will consider STEM careers when they get older.”

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