FIRST Robotics Inspires Utah STEM Students to Enter STEM Fields

14 Mar 2022

Robotics programs offer students an exciting glimpse into the teamwork required to make a robot work. Working professionals often credit their middle or high school robotics team participation in sparking their interest in pursuing a STEM career.

Enrique Arce-Larreta, High School Science and Physics Teacher

The following was written by Enrique Arce-Larreta, a science and physics teacher and DoD STEM Ambassador. DoD STEM Ambassadors work with the Defense STEM Education Consortium (DSEC) to advance STEM outreach for students who are underrepresented in STEM and/or military connected. Arce-Larreta was selected by FIRST, a DSEC partner, as their DoD STEM ambassador for the 2020-2021 school year.

Q. What do an electrical engineer at SpaceX, a mechanical engineer at Honda, a researcher for the RAND Corporation and a Goldman Sachs employee have in common?

A. All are alumni of Salt Lake City’s FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) Team 3006, also known as Red Rock Robotics.

Founded in 2009, the Red Rock Robotics FRC team is Utah’s second oldest. Many students on the team say their participation inspired them to pursue STEM careers.

Red Rock Robotics has been based at West High School in Salt Lake City since its inception. The team supports about 30 students annually, many of whom have gone on to major in STEM subjects in college and continue to STEM careers. Most students attend the University of Utah, but West High alumni have also graduated from MIT, Princeton, Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, Rice, Gonzaga, Haverford, Amherst and Brigham Young University. Here are some of their stories:

A.J. Bull graduated from West High in 2016, the year his team competed in FIRST Stronghold, a game where robots storm a medieval castle by maneuvering through obstacles. Bull, who recently completed his computer science degree, credits the program with inspiring his studies in machine learning and robotics at the University of Utah: “FRC introduced me to robotics as well as helped me make personal connections with older students also interested in programming.”

FIRST robotics inspired me to study electrical engineering and spiked my interest in tech” says David Elliott, who now works for SpaceX. Elliot was the captain of the robotics team during the 2014 Aerial Assist season. His team programmed a robot to launch yoga balls over a truss. Elliot participated in FRC during all four years in high school and enjoyed how project-based learning encouraged independence. He attended Cal Tech after high school and worked at Jet Propulsion Laboratory prior to joining SpaceX.

The West High Robotics Program provides an opportunity for students to design and build robots with the following:

  • CAD-based 3-D printing
  • Electrical training and management
  • Metal shop that includes safety and manufacturing training
  • Computational resources and sensors

Sophie Byde was the captain of her FRC team during the 2020 Infinite Recharge season, where she and her teammates designed robots to launch balls with rockets and make goals. Their robot also had to climb and balance on a truss. “Participation in FIRST is what allowed me to discover my passion for hands-on work and problem solving in STEM, which is a large part of why I am pursuing an engineering degree now!” says Byde, who studies aerospace engineering at the University of Arizona. She currently works in the SpaceTREx Laboratory, which develops small spacecraft, robots and sensors.

Joining a robotics team can provide more than just an education in the STEM disciplines. Students also have the chance to learn about the following:

  • Business marketing proposals and fundraising opportunities
  • Creative animation and art awards
  • Service and outreach projects

Davis Unruh worked on the 2012 Rebound Rumble Game season, which was a basketball-style robotics competition. Unruh is currently a graduate student studying condensed matter physics at the University of California, Davis. He has worked at the Marine Space Grant Consortium with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Unruh says, “FIRST enhanced my enthusiasm for scientific activities and provided my first exposure to computer programming.” He adds that it wasn’t all STEM related: “Being on the robotics team also exposed me to other aspects of running an organization, namely fundraising.” As marketing captain that season, Unruh helped finance the program and brought in sponsors that supported the program for many years.


Enrique Arce-Larreta teaches science and Advanced Placement / International Baccalaureate physics at West High School in Salt Lake City, Utah. He has a masters’ degree in mechanical engineering. A 10-year FIRST coach with an impressive list of awards, Arce-Larreta currently has four robotics teams covering students in 7th–12th grade. He also coached the West High team that became the first U.S. team in history to win CERN’s Beamline for Schools international competition for its particle accelerator experiment, beating 179 teams from 49 countries.


FIRST is a global robotics community preparing K–12 students to be science and technology leaders and innovators by engaging them in exciting mentor-based programs that build STEM skills, inspire innovation and foster well-rounded life capabilities, including self-confidence, communication and leadership. Annually, DoD STEM sponsors over 1,500 FIRST teams coached or mentored by a DoD scientist or engineer or a Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) teacher. FIRST continues to support and expand military-connected student teams through class packs and increased engagement at DoDEA and military-connected schools. For more information, visit