Discovering The Academic Self Through FIRST Robotics

The high school math teacher wasn’t exactly a star student growing up, certainly not the pupil you envisioned pursuing a career in academia.

Eric Reed discovered his calling relatively late in life. The high school math teacher wasn’t exactly a star student growing up, certainly not the pupil you envisioned pursuing a career in academia. His grades hovered around mediocre and his attention span flicked in and out of focus in class. He stayed in school mostly to participate in extracurricular programs like a radio workshop and theater class -- hands-on experiences that felt interactive and instantly gratifying.

“Those were the only things that I could focus on at the time,” he said. “And a big part of that was because the teacher I had gave me the opportunity to excel at something, to work with my hands, figure things out, to get involved in something interactive. It’s just that I could see the results right away.”

His first career didn’t exactly foreshadow his days teaching numbers either. He started in sales, buying and selling hosiery for a major department store -- not the typical precedent to a teaching job or role as a robotics and engineering mentor.

But the unusual trajectory of his work life and his earlier struggles in school gave him a perspective that helped him empathize with students for whom math and science didn’t come so easily. Reed was in his thirties when he decided to return to school to obtain a teaching credential. He wanted a career more life-affirming, he said. Plus, he couldn’t shake the itch to mentor after having tutored students in college. He remembered it as fulfilling for making a positive, lasting impression on people trying to better their lives.

“I wasn’t a star student,” Reed said. “No classes really captured my interest, so I didn’t keep up. It wasn’t until my adult life that I really pursued that drive to learn.”

But it took years in the retail business before he decided to make a career out of teaching.

“I just wasn’t doing anything that had a lasting impact,” he said of his well-paying retail sales job. “I was making money for my company and definitely more for myself, but I wasn’t doing anything deeply meaningful, anything that would leave a legacy.”

So he went back to school with a different attitude than before.

Today, he devotes his time to students similar to himself in high school: the late bloomers, the ones who just needed to find their own way to learn math, science and engineering. The 42-year-old instructor works at Middle College High School in the San Francisco Bay Area suburb of San Pablo, California. And after work, he puts on another hat as advisor to the school’s FIRST Robotics Challenge team.

The FIRST program -- a national competitive robotics organization designed to get high school students and younger interested in science, technology, engineering and math -- was founded in 1992 by inventor Dean Kamen. Since then, it’s grown into a global organization, but it still largely depends on private sponsorships, special funding and dedicated teachers like Reed.

The program came to Middle College High with Reed, who transferred there in the early 2000s from a teaching post at another high school. He formed the robotics club there because it played out so successfully at his previous -- and first -- teaching job at De Anza High School, an overcrowded, underfunded campus in a nearby city. 

FIRST was an incredible opportunity, said Reed, but funding was hard to come by. Thanks to a grant from NASA and other corporate sponsorships, he was able to kick start the program at De Anza, offering up big opportunities for students who would otherwise slip through the cracks -- a real chance to learn about math, science and problem-solving without the classroom lectures or textbook reading. Students witnessed real world engineering, mathematics in motion and relatable science, said Reed, and they were the ones applying it.

The robotics program is an especially great fit for the culture of Middle College High where at-risk students are immersed in rigorous schedules of concurrent high school and college classes. There’s no time for after-school sports or electives if they are anything other than squarely academic, said Principal Hattie Smith.

“We have FIRST here because it is an opportunity for students to apply what they’re learning in the classroom to real-life situations,” Smith said. “That’s exactly what this is. It’s applying the textbook knowledge to the real world.”

It’s what kids will remember in college, she added, and well into their careers.

Reed echoes that statement, believing that FIRST gives students a reason to stay focused on academics even after the school bell rings.

“This is where the learning really sticks -- here in the lab when you have to figure out immediate problems with real deadlines,” Reed said. “And, I can’t teach them by giving them the answer. I often don’t know the answer. Every robot is different, every year there’s a new challenge and problems pop up unexpectedly. We figure this out together as we go.”

The lessons learned in the lab not only stuck with Reed’s former student Marcus Ashley, now 28, they changed the course of his life. Reed met Ashley as an incoming freshman, one falling behind in math with little confidence in his ability to catch up.

“[Reed] gave me an assessment and helped me realize that I didn’t actually have a problem with math, I just needed help performing better,” Ashley said.

Ashley was encouraged to take a couple math courses in his freshman year, one of them a workshop. Once Reed gave him the tools to catch up, a bond was formed.

“You rarely see a teacher who takes an interest in students that way and figures out how a student learns,” said Ashley, now an IT professional at a Bay Area law firm and University of California, Berkeley, alum. “He helped me reach that turning point. From there, I made huge strides.”

Ashley credits Reed’s math intervention and the FIRST robotics program with his present success. Through FIRST, he gained confidence in his own ability and intelligence. He learned how to relate to professionals, experts and engineers. He learned the art of gracious professionalism -- an ethos FIRST prides itself on fostering.

With professional grace of his own, Reed deflects credit for establishing the program and for the success of his mentorship to the students themselves. The club is theirs, he says, so they can claim the payoff, whether that’s a win at a regional robotics competition or the longer-term skills they acquire.

Does he miss the fast-paced, financially rewarding world of retail?

“It was fun going to New York -- seeing fashion shows, all the excitement that surrounds it,” he said. “But at the end of the day, you’re not giving back to society. At least with what I do now, I feel like I’m contributing to society. Right here, I can share what I know -- and I know it makes an impact.”