If FIRST Robotics’ goal is to get students to pursue careers in science and technology, then its mission was accomplished with Amber Williamson.
Williamson, 28, Mountain Home, AR, wasn’t really interested in technology until her senior year of high school when she was the sole student to enroll in a class to learn computer networking. That’s when the class’ teacher said, “You know, if you like this, you might be interested in Bomb Squad.”
Bomb Squad is the name of the school’s FIRST, or For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, Robotics team. In the FIRST program, students work with volunteer engineers to build a robot that has to accomplish a specific task. The experience enabled Williamson to work side by side with engineers from Baxter Healthcare.
“I thought, man, if this is what they do every day, I’d like to do that for the rest of my life,” said Williamson, who had previously aspired to be a doctor. “Being on the team brought me into the STEM world.”
During the project, Williamson learned how to use power tools and was introduced to electrical wiring concepts. She also had a chance to practice organizational and time management skills that come naturally to her, and to start to develop her “engineering intuition.” Williamson defines this type of intuition as being able to focus on a problem and know quickly whether a possible solution will work.
These are skills she uses in her job as an engineer II at Baxter, where she was hired in 2012 after earning a degree in mechanical engineering. Williamson works in the plastics division, where products are made for home dialysis.
As for FIRST, she’s not done yet.
Williamson has been mentoring a local team since 2011, along with her husband, whom she met while volunteering. She’s also volunteered for a FIRST Lego League since 2012. In addition, Williamson is president (also since 2012) of the Science and Technology Group, a nonprofit that raises money for FIRST and other STEM initiatives.
“In one year alone, she volunteered more than 550 hours mentoring students between the ages of 16 and 18 in the FIRST program,” wrote her 30 Under 30 nominator.
Williamson is part of a tradition at Baxter, which was a founding sponsor of FIRST. Since 1998, its aggregate support for the robotics program exceeds $2.5 million, and about 30 employees throughout the country participate as mentors, many from the Mountain Home facility.
Williamson focuses on helping out with the business side of the local FIRST team, including news media relations, social media, travel logistics and scouting for competitors. Seeing the excitement in the team is rejuvenating for her, Williamson said.
“It’s definitely a different world for me,” she said. “I want the students to have the best experience.”
After having been involved with FIRST for so long, Williamson said she definitely sees stronger participation among females, at least anecdotally. Her high school team included three girls out of more than 20 team members; the team of 24 students she mentors today includes almost one-third females.
Her future plans include staying with Baxter’s plastics division and continuing to support FIRST with her time and efforts.
“It’s addicting,” she said. “Honestly, after one build competition, you don’t want to stop.”
This article was first published in the July 2016 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. Read all of the 2016 30 Under 30 Profiles as a PDF.