Editor's Note: Welcome to this week's edition of STEM Student of the Week. Once a week, ECN features a student working on a degree (of any level) in engineering as part of our STEM initiative. If you know a student who would like to be featured, email me at blog is posted every Friday.

Meet Freya Wilhelm, a senior at Lower East Side Preparatory High School, and captain of the FRC team, 4263, the Cyber Dragons.

Kasey Panetta, ECN Editor: Hi Freya! Part of the reason you caught our attention was your involvement in FIRST, which is an organization devoted to getting kids involved in STEM. Just how are you involved with this organization? 

Freya Wilhelm: As captain of our team, I have a lot of responsibilities. I manage our subgroups by assigning people to the build team, 3D design team, and other duties such as safety captain, driving, and cleaning or equipment organization based on individual skills and experience. I also help plan and build the robots themselves, and approve any new ideas or decisions, usually by consulting the individual team members and mentors first. During the off-season, I've been designing posters and speaking to students for potential recruitment, and designing new T-shirts, as well as keeping inventory for the upcoming season. Aside from fulfilling the leadership role, I try to focus on mechanical and structural issues as we design, build, and maintain the robot, in order to get as much hands-on experience as possible, as I hope to major in mechanical engineering, or possibly mechatronics if I can improve my electrical and computer skills.

Panetta: So was engineering always a dream of yours?

Wilhelm: My original dream was to be a comic artist, since I was small, and I even attended a high school specializing in art for a few years. I was always interested by robots in many comics and animated shows that I watched, and I had a slight interest in engineering, but I never seriously considered it as a career path until I joined my current school's robotics team. 

Panetta: How did you end up involved in First?

Wilhelm: I was invited to the team by a school friend who was on the team. At first I was reluctant, because I was awkward and had poor social skills, shy around new people, and not confident in myself. But after meeting everyone, completing minor tasks, and learning how to use the equipment, I felt like I could be an asset to the team, despite the build season being nearly over. I began to feel that this could be a very important part of my life, and I looked forward to more involvement with the team in the future.

Panetta: How did it change you?

Wilhelm: FIRST changed my life. First and foremost, it allowed me to come clean. In my old school, I realized art just wasn't what I wanted to do as a career. I became depressed and turned to substance abuse and escapism, and eventually, an abusive relationship. I thought just transferring to Lower East Side Preparatory High School would help me change, but I couldn't focus on school, and I was too ashamed of my personal life to seek help or make many new friends. After joining our robotics team, I realized that although I was interested in engineering, I must first let go of my past if I were to truly pursue it as a career. It was difficult, and took a while, but by the new semester I had made a big change in my life. I ended my substance abuse and abusive relationship, and I began to attend school regularly and improved my grades. Just in time for my second competition season with team 4263, I had started anew.

Panetta: That's really incredible, Freya. What would you say is your dream job now?

Wilhelm: Inspired by a show called Mobile suit Gundam I used to watch when I was young, my ultimate dream job is to design and build large, energy efficient robots that can be used on both Earth and in space for various purposes. Of course, that would need a lot of people with different skills working together, so to be a little more realistic, my dream job is to be a mechanical engineer or a mechatronics engineer on a team that will design and build the large robot.

Panetta: I have no doubts that you'll make it there! What would you say is the most challenging part of the FIRST Competitions?

Wilhelm: Everything about the First Robotics Competition is a challenge- designing, building, and actually competing. Considering we only have six weeks to build the robot, and the first two weeks are really just designing, and the last four weeks are building, testing, and practice, for most FRC teams I think our time limit is a big challenge. But I guess that's what makes it fun. As for my team, however, I think our biggest challenge is recruitment, because Lower East Side Preparatory is a transfer school, our student body is very small and most students only spend a year or two in our school. For these reasons, our team usually only has between ten and twenty active members altogether, which is very small compared to a lot of other teams we see at the actual competitions.

Panetta: So what would you say to someone in middle school considering a career in engineering?

Wilhelm: For young people who are considering a career in engineering, I have a lot of advice. My first suggestion would be to experiment. For example, I always thought I would have a career in art. I built my entire life around it. But once I experienced art school and realized it's not what I wanted, I had nothing to fall back on. I was lost until I left my comfort zone and tried robotics. I sometimes think, if I never made that decision to try something new, I wouldn't have that direction in my life that I do now. My second suggestion would be not to get involved with drugs and alcohol. I partied a lot before I got into robotics, and it was fun at the time, but it's time that I'll never get back. All that time I spent drinking, doing drugs, and hanging out with the wrong sort of people was fun in the moment, but looking back now, it was a lot of time I could have used to finish my education and build my career. As you grow older, you realize a lot of people around you may drink or do drugs,  but you must absolutely never let other people pressure you. Even if you make that decision to try drugs or alcohol, you have to be responsible- It will consume you faster than you realize. My final suggestion would be to try. Try very hard. Whatever you want to do, you need effort to accomplish it. Things don't just happen for you out of thin air. It'd be great if they did, but they don't. So always put your best effort into what you do.

Panetta: What makes engineering a great career? 

Wilhelm: Engineering is great for a lot of reasons. Firstly, engineering is a creative career- It's applying your knowledge of math and science to inventing or improving something, so it's a career path that requires a lot of thinking outside the box. Just because you're a creative person doesn't mean you're limited to the arts- engineering is full of creative people, and is always looking for more. Secondly, there's so many different kinds of engineering, there's just about a branch for anything. Electrical, civil, mechanical, aerospace, nuclear, bio engineering- the list goes on. If you have an interest in engineering, you're sure to find the right branch to suit your personality and interests. Oh, and one last thing- Engineers usually get paid pretty well. They make and improve things for our changing world, so they're in high demand.

Panetta: Who do you look up to as a role model?

I like to consider all engineers to be my role models. I believe that each and every engineer, of every branch, no matter how successful or unsuccessful, past and present, is crucial to the advancement of the human race. Every engineer out there is thinking, inventing, improving, maintaining, having their eureka moments and their frustrations- Not just for themselves or their jobs, but for the whole world! So every engineer is my hero. And I hope that maybe someday, someone could say the same of me and the other aspiring engineers of my generation, as well as of our predecessors before us.

Panetta: What's your favorite part about engineering?

Wilhelm:  My favorite part of engineering is the creative process of inventing and improving. I'm a very detail oriented and practical person, and I'm just constantly inspecting the things around me and thinking of how I could make it better, because I believe that there is always room for improvement. Another thing I like is that it's sort of social. I'm still a little awkward, but I've learned a lot by working on a team. Building a robot together is hard work, but when you do it together, it's a lot of fun.

Panetta: Did I miss anything?

Wilhelm: I hope my story can inspire others like me to become involved in STEM and FIRST. It has made an incredible difference in my life, and I think anyone can benefit from just taking a little time to learn something new. I would also like to thank my teacher Henry Ruan, the staff at Lower East Preparatory High School, all of my mentors from Goldman Sachs, and Destiny Peralta, who introduced me to team 4263 and the First Robotics Competition. And thank you, Electronic Component News, for giving me this opportunity to share my experience with others.

Panetta: We're happy to do it! You certainly do have an incredible story. Thanks so much for your time and good luck in your career and the competition!