Jupiter, FL (November 29, 2011) – Students at the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College of Florida Atlantic University are encouraged to challenge themselves academically and assist in their community through acts of service. Occasionally, those two goals come together in a single project. That is certainly the case for Wilkes Honors College Junior Christopher Holmquist, who has dedicated his knowledge of robotics and engineering to help younger students gain valuable leadership skills and identify their academic goals.
For the past five years Holmquist has served as a mentor for the MARS (Mega Awesome Robotics System) team as it prepares for the First Robotics Competition, an event founded in the 1990’s by inventor and engineer Dean Kaman. The competition now includes a large number of competitors from high schools across the country, and winning is anything but easy; the team will have only six weeks to design and build a six-foot tall robot that will compete for a number of awards, including prizes for design, computer programming, and completion of certain tasks. While the team usually meets every other week in the off-season to discuss the upcoming competition, the members work around the clock during the short six-week season, putting in an average of twenty hours a week to build the robot and prepare for competition.
As a mentor, Holmquist is responsible for helping his team of more than thirty high school students build the best robot they can. For Holmquist, though, the competition is about much more than robotics. He hopes to inspire younger students to achieve their goals and gain skills they can use later in college and in their careers. “I want to help kids who may just like science or like robots get their feet wet in these fields and learn what they really want to specialize in,” states Holmquist. The competition teaches students about the ins and outs of computer programming and robotics, but there is also a major emphasis on other skills, such as community outreach, grant writing, support and promotions, and essay writing. Only the high school students on the team are allowed to complete these tasks, but Holmquist occupies an active role as a mentor, encouraging his teammates and offering advice that helped him during his years as a MARS competitor.
For Holmquist, this program has had a significant impact on his education. “The competition taught me valuable leadership skills,” he states, “and I also learned how to fix things and make things work. Engineering is useful everywhere.” Holmquist says that MARS helped him see his own interests in a new light. “I started because I just liked robots. But as time went on I realized that I could actually have a future in this field and that robotics was a viable career path for me.” He hopes that his work as a mentor will allow younger students to do the same.
This year MARS will compete against many other teams for a chance to compete in the national competition held in St. Louis, Missouri. However, there are plenty of ways to get to nationals, and Holmquist has his eye on something other than a first place ribbon. “The Chairman’s Award is the most prestigious award you can receive at a competition,” he explains. The award is given to the team who has been the most committed to community service, especially through mentoring middle and elementary school students in their own science programs and putting together programs to educate members of the community about robotics. In 2009 MARS left the regional competition with this award, and Holmquist wants the students to have a chance at it again this season. He feels that this award instills values in younger students that will push them to be active in their communities and in the future of generations following them.
Holmquist maintains that he will remain a mentor for many years to come, including during his time in graduate school. “I plan to find the nearest team and sign up to be a mentor as soon as I’m accepted to grad school,” he says with a smile. “This program has given me so much; I want to stay involved for as long as I possibly can.”
byline: WHC Student Intern Megan Geiger