Meet Giving Hero Xbot Robotics

By Elisa Willman, Senior Manager MarComm, Microsoft Citizenship

Tom Blank and Mike Sinclair have found the perfect way to use their professional skills to benefit others. By day, they work as Microsoft engineers. By night, they teach teens how to build really cool robots.

Tom and Mike are volunteer mentors for XBOT Robotics, a nonprofit organization that teaches kids from the South Seattle area to build robots and then gives them the chance to compete against other kids from around the Pacific Northwest and the world. In the process, the mentors hope to kindle in their students an interest in science, technology, engineering and math that will lead to college and valuable careers. Along the way, the kids develop social skills, such as collaboration and sportsmanship that can benefit them for the rest of their lives.

Every Tuesday and Thursday evening and Saturday morning, 30 to 45 students meet in a Microsoft conference room in Redmond with their volunteer mentors, who teach them programming, mechanical design and electronics. They participate in a variety of activities and exercises throughout the year, culminating in the FIRST Robotics Challenge, a competition that gives teams just a few weeks to build 120-pound robots that can carry out specified tasks and then pits those robots against each other.

It’s a lot of fun for both the kids and the adults, but the mentors say they stay involved with the program for something bigger: the chance to make a permanent impact on young people’s lives. “The best part is the privilege of seeing the students grow up,” Tom says. “You teach them, see them develop, write their college references, and help them launch.”

As part of the Microsoft YouthSpark initiative and our Employee Giving Program, we’re featuring Tom and Mike’s story among 30 Microsoft employee Giving Heroes who are helping young people overcome a number of challenges and capture new opportunities. For Tom and Mike’s work, XBOT Robotics will receive a $1,000 grant. A major source of XBOT's funding is our Giving Program, which donates $17 for each hour an employee volunteers. “This money is a significant part of the lifeblood that keeps our organization going,” Tom says. Highlighting their story also gives them a chance to raise even more money through the upcoming #GivingTuesday campaign.

Most of the students who participate in XBOT Robotics teams are from the Franklin High School area in South Seattle. It’s a school that serves 95 percent students of color and where 65 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Half of all XBOT students come from homes where English is the second language. The robotics program has played a role in helping many students become the first members of their families to attend college. Tom says it was especially rewarding to see one such student accept a full-ride scholarship to Stanford recently. Students involved with XBOT have also accepted scholarships to the University of Washington, MIT and many other prestigious schools.

Each year, the specifics of the FIRST Robotics Challenge change. No team knows the exact challenges and constraints their robots will face until the first week of January, when FIRST Robotics reveals the challenges and rules of the year’s competition. From that point, teams have six weeks to design, build and test their robots. Recent years’ competitions have required robots to throw Frisbees accurately, climb a pole, shoot basketballs, kick a soccer ball, pick up and strategically place inner tubes, and a variety of other challenges. They also have to be able to withstand potential hazards such as collisions with walls or other robots.  It can be tough to keep control of a brand-new 120-pound robot. Though Mike, Tom, and the other mentors are happy to provide guidance and advice, the students are ultimately responsible for the design and construction of their robots.

This process gives the students experience with the kind of real-world challenges they’ll face if they choose to pursue a STEM career. The classroom setting doesn’t always adequately prepare students for the deadlines, budget constraints and workflow issues that engineers face daily in their careers. “When they go away to college they’ll be ready to understand schedules and timing and deadlines far better,” Tom says.

Meet other Giving Heroes by following #youthspark, #givinghero and #msftgiving on Microsoft Facebook and Twitter.  We're showcasing inspiring employees making a difference for youth leading into #GivingTuesday.