The Krypton Cougars robotics team poses for a photo at a recent FIRST competition. FIRST stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science Technology.”

July 5, 2023

Electrical Engineer by Day, Robotics Coach by Night (and Weekends)

For almost a decade and a half, David Walker of Benham, a Haskell Company, has fostered kids' love of STEM as FIRST Robotics coach and mentor.


David Walker already had a full-time job as an electrical engineer with Benham, a Haskell Company, when he was approached about mentoring high school students. After work from Monday to Thursday. Also, Saturdays. For an eight-week period starting the first Saturday in January. And then the competition season starts. 

Walker said yes. It actually wasn’t such a hard sell.  

David Walker
David Walker

“I’m an engineer, right? So, if somebody walks up to you and says, ‘Hey, there are some people building a robot. Do you want to help?’  It’s like, ‘Well, of course, I do.’’’ 

And so began Walker’s avocation as a mentor to FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science Technology) Robotics Team 2539, the Krypton Cougars. A decade and a half later, he is still inspiring, teaching and helping high school and sometimes even younger students create robots. Each year’s robot is designed differently to compete against other teams’ entries performing a specialized task.  

The organization’s website describes the program as such: “Under strict rules and limited time and resources, teams of high school students are challenged to build industrial-size robots to play a difficult field game in alliance with other teams while also fundraising to meet their goals, designing a team ‘brand,’ and advancing respect and appreciation for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) within the local community.” 

Teams compete at various district qualifying events, where this year, Walker’s team was ranked No. 1 twice while captaining their alliance to victory and received awards for Engineering Excellence and Autonomous Controls. If they are good enough, as Walker’s teams have been in three straight years of competition dating to before the pandemic, they can advance to compete on the global stage. 

In April, 620 teams worldwide met in Houston for the World Championship. The Krypton Cougars finished ranked #1 in their division of 77 teams but fell in the tiebreaker of their divisional Finals, just missing the opportunity to play for the Championship of the World for the 2nd year in a row. 

‘Continuous improvement’ 

“Our motto has always been continuous improvement and we never stop,” Walker says. “Say we go to our first competition and we win. We come back and we say, ‘Ok, that’s great, but guess what? The other 35 teams just saw what it takes to be successful. They just saw what it takes to win. They also saw new and better ways to do stuff, and they are fixing their robots to be different.’ So, we are constantly redesigning and inventing for every competition.”   

Over the years, more than 9,000 teams worldwide have participated in FIRST Robotics competitions. About one-third of that number is currently active. The Krypton Cougars are Team 2539 because, 16 years ago, they were the 2,539th team created. Walker has been with the team for the past 14 years.  

The team comprises students from two neighboring schools in central Pennsylvania, where Walker lives.   

Walker is proud to be part of an ecosystem that helps students develop interest and acumen in STEM-related activities and, subsequently, helps create a school-to-workforce pipeline of bright people eager to take on the challenges of the world.   

FIRST Robotics program began as America faced the hard reality of a shortage of young people motivated to be the next generation of engineers, scientists and doctors.  

The Cougars’ robot in action.
The Cougars’ robot in action.

Inspiring inquisitiveness 

“There were companies out there that couldn’t hire people with the right technology-based education experiences,” Walker said. “So, we’re taking a novel approach that said, ‘What if we all work together to train people in our schools and on to a secondary education where they get the training they need to go right into the workforce or college internships?’”  

Not only did the concept of using robots to generate interest work, but it also created a pipeline, as intended.  

“It’s a pretty big deal to put FIRST Robotics on your resume,” he said. “It gets a lot of doors open for students.” 

Walker keeps in touch with many of his former team members and has been encouraged when some have returned as mentors themselves. One of the greatest perks, he said, is seeing how much students love what they are doing. It excites them. It challenges them.  

“A lot of this is trying to get students to find something they like,” he says. “I want them to be able to experience this, and I want them to realize that a lot of this stuff isn’t hard. People can be intimidated by this, but if you break it down into small parts, it is really not that difficult.”  

Haskell offers each team member four hours off work per month for volunteer work. Explore the many options available to join a growing company that encourages and enables its team members to give back to their communities. 

Haskell delivers $2± billion annually in Architecture, Engineering, Construction (AEC) and Consulting solutions to assure certainty of outcome for complex capital projects worldwide. Haskell is a global, fully integrated, single-source design-build and EPC firm with over 2,200 highly specialized, in-house design, construction and administrative professionals across industrial and commercial markets. With 20+ office locations around the globe, Haskell is a trusted partner for global and emerging clients.

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