By day, Nikki Jackson is a BAE Systems Senior Lead Software Developer. But in her spare time, Jackson is a coach, mentor and volunteer for a number of organizations that promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education for students of all ages.

“I have always believed that we need to get children involved with STEM early,” said Jackson. “I hope that by volunteering, I help inspire students to pursue STEM careers.”

One organization Jackson is a strong supporter of is FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). The not-for-profit group, founded in 1989, designs innovative programs to build self-confidence, knowledge and life skills while motivating young people to pursue STEM careers.

“When I heard about FIRST, I was surprised to see these large teams of students getting their hands dirty and working on creative, and challenging STEM projects,” said Jackson. “It’s not just a group of professionals talking at students about how great STEM careers can be.”

One project that really impressed Jackson was the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC). Each January, FIRST unveils a new robotics-building challenge for high school students to tackle. While the purpose of the robot may change each year, the rules stay the same. Students, working closely with teachers and volunteers, have six weeks to design, build, program and test a robot for the competition. Each team receives a kit of common parts used to build the core systems of the robot, but the rest is up to them.

“Since the competition is different each year, everyone is always amazed with what these teams can do in such a seemingly short window - especially since there are certain specifications that need to be met,” said Jackson.

Once their robots are complete, teams can enter one of 52 regional competitions. For example, more than 60 high school teams across the U.S. are expected to attend the March 2013 Washington DC regional competition alone. Jackson will also be in attendance - as a judge. Teams can receive awards for a wide range of things, from technical performance, to good sportsmanship.

“Each award that we present has quite specific criteria that we have to look for and judge on – there are many times that we will go back just to interact with these teams to ensure we are spot on with our decisions,” said Jackson. “I love how intense we get in the judging room!”

It’s competitive, but the students find plenty of ways to have fun.

“The students love showing off their robots to each other, and even their dance moves.... yes, there is a DJ at FRC,” said Jackson. “I personally see how being involved with FIRST can take a introvert out of his/her shell or help a freshman emerge into a team leader.”

The winning teams from each regional walk away with bragging rights and an invitation to the National Championship in St. Louis. But even the runners-up walk away with great stories and valuable scholarship opportunities. Participating high-school juniors and seniors are eligible to apply for more than $15 million in scholarships from leading universities, colleges and companies.

“I’m proud to work at a company that supports STEM education, and organizations like FIRST,” said Jackson. “More companies should, because these students are future employees and leaders in our industry.”

Want to learn more about FIRST? You can meet Jackson and check out the Washington, DC regional competition March 29 and 30. If you don’t live in the DC area, chances are there’s a competition coming soon to your area too. For more information about FIRST, and opportunities to volunteer as a mentor or judge, visit their website: