FPL engineer and former competitor helps students build award-winning robots
March 18, 2024
Lily Pawlak at the FIRST Robotics Competition

Fort Lauderdale, Fla. - The clock is ticking, and Zach Dean is rushing to put the final touches on a robot that’s minutes away from battling other machines. His high school robotics team, S.P.A.M., is preparing to enter the makeshift arena inside Broward County’s Convention Center where game controllers connected to laptops weave robots through a speed and obstacle course 

For the last six weeks, these Stuart teenagers have been building a robot from scratch, complete with high-powered brushless motors and 3D vision systems, out of a 6,000-square-foot warehouse the Martin County School District provided them this year. It was an investment the community made for its schools, enabling them to expand science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs and reach more students. 

Now, S.P.A.M. must battle other high schools from around the world in the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition. Students are wielding power drills, hex wrenches and laptops to fix any bugs in the robot’s coding before the match.  

We learn how to build, code and wire robots,” Dean said. “I’m a mechanical lead, so I help design the robot and build parts to protect it as well.”    

Dean credits team mentor Elizabeth “Lily Pawlak for expanding his machine skills and teaching him how to use the power tools and industrial machinery it takes to build the robots. 

Twelve years ago, Pawlak was a machinist for S.P.A.M. too, participating in the same competitions her mentees are in now and crafting robot parts from scratch. Today, she’s an equipment reliability engineer supporting Florida Power & Light Company’s (FPL) nuclear fleet. This is Pawlak’s first year mentoring and FPL's twelfth year sponsoring the competition. 

“I wanted to come back and be a mentor because I want to show them that it's not just a fun thing to do in high school, that it really can be an opportunity for your future,” Pawlak said. “I've taught them basic skills like how to use a tape measure to more advanced skills like how to use a mill, a lathe and Computer Numerical Control machining.” 

One of the main benefits of STEM education is helping students develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills, which they can apply beyond the classroom. It also equips them to succeed in a rapidly changing world driven by technology and innovation. 

Pawlak said robotics geared her toward engineering. It also helped her start a career at FPL.  

“I met a lot of incredible people back then, professionals who volunteered their time at these competitions, and I maintained those connections throughout college,” she said. “These connections really make a difference for the children involved. It shows them companies care, that companies are interested in them and that they have a future if they ever want to look forward to career opportunities with them.” 

Other FPL employees volunteered at the event in the form of judges, mentors, emcees, referees, robot inspectors and even robot doctors. FPL sponsors a Robot Urgent Care, which is a portable machine shop, where company machinists and engineers fix broken robots, so students don’t have to drop out of the competition.  

Luckily, S.P.A.M. didn’t need a robot doctor this year. The team took home first place and the quality award for their machine 

“It’s amazing watching all of their hard work come to fruition,” Pawlak said. “These students feel so great knowing that the county, the school board and companies like FPL are investing in them, supporting them and giving them all of the tools they need to succeed.” 

FPL has opened its FPL Robotics Scholarship application for 2024 to all public and private high school students across FPL’s service area with two or more years in a FIRST Tech Challenge or FIRST Robotics Competition. Interested students can submit their application through May 15 at FPL.com/Education under STEM Grants and Scholarship.