High Tech Non-Profit

Published in January 2010 enewsletter for FIRST

Katelyn Milkowski ─ FIRST is Foremost for MIT Student

FIRST alumna Katelyn Milkowski has been interested in STEM disciplines since she helped start the Pewaukee High School Team 1259 in Pewaukee, WI, back in 2003.

Katelyn, who today is a FIRST Scholarship recipient and a junior at MIT in Cambridge, MA, initially became involved with FIRST through the FIRST LEGO League (FLL) competition when she was in sixth grade. The Wisconsin native continued with FLL throughout middle school, where she was the only team programmer for all three years, and went on to become one of two co-heads of programming on her high school FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) team. While at Pewaukee High, Katelyn also found time to mentor the FLL team, and continues to mentor the FRC team during college breaks.

Katelyn said FIRST was the best thing to happen to her in high school and explains that while sports can foster team-building and fuel fun, and academic teams can cultivate intellectual interests and thoughts, “only FIRST has been able to combine the two to make an exciting, engaging activity that provides hands-on, real world applications and do it in a fun way.”

In fact, Katelyn said she feels FIRST was the first program to make science more exciting than sports, commenting “only with FIRST would you ever see high school students at a pep rally cheering on a robot as it makes three-point shots.” Katelyn added that Team 1259 “Paradigm Shift” was also the first team, to her knowledge, to employ its own cheerleaders ─ duct tape skirts and all.

However, not only was FIRST able to make science more fun, but, said Katelyn, it was also able to bridge gaps between different student groups. “Thanks to FIRST, someone was not automatically branded a “nerd” for being in an academic club. Self-proclaimed “jocks” were integral parts of the team, as were artistic and intellectual students. FIRST was and is an activity that bridges gaps.”

Katelyn said her initial year with FIRST was “definitely our best. As rookies, we ranked fourth at the highly competitive Chicago Regional, winning both the highest seeded rookie team award and the Spirit Award.” Overall, Katelyn said her experience with FIRST was “an amazing, unbelievably great experience and one I wish I could live again and again.”

Although being 1,000 miles away can sometimes make it difficult, when she can, Katelyn still meets with Pewaukee High teacher, Ruth LePoidevin, who coordinates the FIRST program at the school. Katelyn takes pride in the team she formed and is also proud of the fact that a former teammate whom she mentored was last year’s Class Valedictorian and is now a freshman at Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, also in MA. , .

Katelyn said her fondest memories have always centered on FIRST experiences, adding that through the organization she has been able nurture and sustain many great friendships. In addition, those experiences helped to ease the transition to college because many MIT students were also involved in FIRST ─ or programs like FIRST ─ while at their hometown schools, which helped in making connections. In fact, FIRST alumni comprise approximately 10 percent of the MIT Class of 2012.

When Katelyn, who is the recipient of a second scholarship from MIT and works on campus in the MIT Sloan MBA Admissions Office to help pay for college, initially came to the college campus, her experience with FIRST helped academically, too. Katelyn explains, “The programming experience was a tremendous help to me because our high school lacked programming classes. Had it not been for FIRST, I would have been left behind at a technologically-driven school like MIT.”

Her advice for future FIRST participants? “Speak up. It’s easy to feel drowned out in large teams, especially for girls in a predominantly male club. If anyone ever doubts your idea, build it and prove them wrong. Not only will they start listening to you, but they’ll also start to respect you and your voice.”

When she graduates from MIT in 2011, Katelyn hopes to continue her studies in biophysics and focus on genetics research or radiology.

This year, FIRST students are eligible to apply for more than $12 million in FIRST Scholarship funds. View 2010 opportunities.