A group picture of Zebra-mentored FIRST Robotics teams
By Tom Boehm | April 11, 2019

#ThrowbackThursday – The History of Zebra’s Support for FIRST®

Zebra employee mentors robotics team for over 20 years while company grows commitment to supporting technical education

Twenty years ago, Zebra engineer Chris Foley was asked if he could spend a couple hours each week helping some local high school students on Long Island, New York, build a robot. He obliged. When Chris’ then 17-year-old son discovered what he was doing, he asked his dad if he could help build a robot at his school too. This was the start of Zebra’s support for FIRST®, an organization centered around robot-building and competitions that provides accessible, innovative programs to young people globally to build education and entrepreneurial skills.

After getting the students at the local high school competition-ready, Chris parted ways with the team and let them know he was always available if they needed help. He then began mentoring a robotics team at his son’s high school in West Islip, New York. They were named “Rookie of The Year” in their inaugural competition.

A couple years later, Chris’ son graduated. His daughter, an incoming freshman, then joined the West Islip high school FIRST team and worked on a new robotics business plan with her dad and teammates. She, too, then graduated a few years later.

It might not have occurred to Chris that he could’ve stopped mentoring — his kids were in college and he was working full time at Zebra by then. He had no real reason to frequent the high school anymore, much less coach the FIRST robotics team. But Chris just kept going. The students and teachers were expecting him, after all. He became a fixture at their school. And he saw the bigger-picture-impact of the program.

FIRST Was One of the First STEM Programs to Foster Engineering Excitement

When Chris first became involved with FIRST, the acronym “STEM” hadn’t even been coined yet. STEM, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, was termed in the early 2000s. Chris says it happened right around the time people began noticing woodshops had disappeared from high schools and trade school became the only formal training option for someone wanting to learn about the inner workings of a car.

West Islip High School, unlike many others, never eliminated its woodworking nor automotive programs. Chris said many teachers wholly credit the robotics team for keeping the technical curriculum around. The equipment and interest spurred from the robotics team never went away, so the classes didn’t either.

Similar to West Islip, Zebra saw value in STEM education and the FIRST organization. This curriculum gives kids the opportunity to build something from start to finish, and it nurtures future leaders in everything from finance to software engineering.

Four years ago, a FIRST alumnus was interviewed for a technical intern position at Zebra. Chris knew the young man, so he held back and let his colleagues decide independently if this student was the best fit for the position. When the interview was complete, the decision to hire him was unanimous. Zebras were impressed by the alumnus’ vast technology knowledge and experience.

Zebra has hired many FIRST alumni over the years. Reason being, the kids on FIRST teams are no different than employees of a tech company. They put together fundraising plans, promote their teams to their communities and create innovative software and hardware.

To encourage employees to participate in STEM education and ultimately expand Zebra’s philanthropic activities, the company now offers two special benefits:

  • Eligible employees can get approval for paid time to volunteer at an eligible charitable organization during regular business hours. For example, employees in the U.S., UK and Canada qualify for four community service days (or 32 hours) each year.
  • When an employee volunteers at an eligible charitable organization outside of working hours, Zebra will donate up to $200 to that organization for every eight hours of service (to a maximum of $800 per employee per year).

In recent years, Zebra has also amplified its support for the FIRST organization.

  • In Illinois, the FIRST Tech Challenge is using rugged tablets donated by Zebra to transition to digital recordkeeping. The tablets help expedite and standardize the scoring process, eliminate chances for human error and make lengthy rule books easily accessible and searchable.
  • Last year in New York, Zebra hosted over 60 students for a robotics expo at the office to congratulate them for a great season. Then, at the beginning of this year, FIRST teams visited our Illinois offices with their robots and encouraged employees to sign up to volunteer. For both events, our employees prodded the students with questions. They were genuinely interested in the mechanics of their robots, and maybe a bit nostalgic about their own beginnings in STEM. Most of all, they were impressed!

Chris has been involved in FIRST for a while, but he still marvels at what these kids can do and how important STEM education is.

“When they’ve tied math, science and design into something they can hold in their hand, and you watch their eyes light up, THAT is why this is important,” Chris emphasized when we recently sat down to speak with him about his experience:


Editor’s Note/Fun Fact: Chris' daughter and son are following in their dad's footsteps. Last month, they both worked with Chris at the FIRST Robotics event that Zebra hosted in Hofstra, New York – nearly 17 years after graduating from high school. What an impressive and dedicated family! We're grateful to have them as part of our extended Zebra family.

Stay tuned into the blog for more exclusive insights into the FIRST program and to follow the progress of Zebra-led teams throughout the year.

Inside Zebra Nation, Corporate Social Responsibility,
Tom Boehm
Tom Boehm

Tom Boehm has over 35 years of engineering experience spanning several industries, and he has been with Zebra for over 25 of those years. In his current role as a software engineer in Zebra’s Data Capture Solutions (DCS) Custom Products group, Mr. Boehm responds to customer requests for unique and sellable new features from Zebra’s scanner product lines.

Prior to this position, he spent many years as a software engineer in Zebra’s DCS standard product group and briefly supported Zebra’s Enterprise Mobile Computing (EMC) group. He also spent about a decade teaching at the university level.

Mr. Boehm holds a BS in Chemical Engineering from The Cooper Union and an MS in Computer Science from the Polytechnic Institute of NY.

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