Bright Futures

Pre-college programs lead to successful careers

A love of Legos and a tendency to tinker and take things apart were early signs that Greg Billetdeaux ’14, Samantha Scharles ’15 and Brian Scharles ’17 would be successful engineers.

img_bright-feature_2Some might say it was in their blood: the three Mukwonago natives are the progeny of engineers.

“My dad is an engineer and I enjoyed working on projects with him when I was growing up,” said Samantha, who holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. Samantha’s brother Brian was also bitten by the bug. He is a junior at MSOE, pursuing a degree in computer engineering. Greg, whose father is a mechanical engineer, earned his degree in software engineering and currently works as a software architect.

But it was a national program offered in middle school, For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) that really got the trio excited about science and technology.

“My mom was involved with the PTO and she also volunteered to run the FIRST LEGO League program at my school,” Samantha said. “FIRST really opened the door to engineering for me.”

FIRST LEGO League (FLL) challenges student teams to research a real-world problem and develop a solution. As part of the challenge, students are asked to create a LEGO-based robot of their own design and compete against other students with the robot in a table-top game.

“I loved LEGOs as a kid,” Greg said. “When I saw a flier at school advertising the FIRST LEGO League I signed up immediately.”

Although Brian wasn’t old enough to participate when Samantha joined – only students in grades four through eight were eligible – he also caught FIRST LEGO fever.

img_bright-feature_3“I tagged along to all of Sam’s FIRST LEGO League events and as soon as I was old enough I joined the program,” Brian said.

For many students, participation in FIRST LEGO League paves the way to the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) in high school, where teams compete head to head with robots they have designed, built and programmed.

Samantha, Greg and Brian were members of the Mukwonago High School FRC Team 930, the Mukwonago Bears.

“Initially I concentrated on mechanical engineering components of our FIRST projects and in high school I focused on software,” said Greg. “That is how I ended up majoring in software engineering at MSOE.”

Greg has gone onto a career developing android apps for Rokkincat.

Programs like FIRST Robotics not only prepare students for the next step on their educational journey at MSOE, they are a great opportunity to secure financial aid: MSOE often awards scholarships to students based on their participation in pre-college programs including FIRST, Project Lead the Way, Skills USA and Technical Student Association (TSA).

At least 10 percent of MSOE’s 2015-16 freshman class participated in FRC. Many MSOE students, like Brian, are still involved as mentors with the program through the FIRST Robotics Collegiate Organization at MSOE.

“Thinking back to when I was on the FIRST Robotics team, what drove me was working with the engineers who mentored the team and how they explained things,” said Brian. “Now as a mentor, I try to work on helping the students find the answers they need by teach them how to reason and understand technical aspects.”

Having found professional success in their own lives, Greg and Samantha are also paying it forward as program mentors.

img_bright-feature_1“Through FIRST Robotics and my education at MSOE, I was able to see the connection between school and the real world, go through the design process and realize the value of it,” Samantha said. She is an electrical engineer on the advance development team for electronics at Milwaukee Tool. “Now I am teaching the value of that process and helping the students have those same experiences before they reach college and their first job.”

Greg, who turned an internship at Rokkincat into a full-time career after his graduation from MSOE, said it was more than his software engineering classes that prepared him for his professional life.

“At MSOE, the more critical classes for me weren’t strictly about programming, but rather those that taught me how to think critically and solve problems,” he said.

Greg aims to share those skills through his mentoring.

“From a software engineer’s perspective, I’m trying to instill best practices in the students,” he said. “There are a lot of solutions, but it’s important to walk through the decision process to find the best solution.”

FIRST Robotics is one of many programs students can participate in at their very own high school. MSOE also offers a number of pre-college programs.

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