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Never Be Too Cool for Robotics

As a high school student, Patrick Jung thought he was too cool for robotics. Today, he regards robotics as the best thing that ever happened to him. Find out why he changed his mind, and how robotics changed his life.
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There’s a myth out there that robotics is just for geeks. Dorks. Dweebs. Nerds. Poindexters. Mathletes. Techies. At least that’s what Patrick Jung thought. This misperception almost kept him from participating in high school robotics, and missing out on what would become his greatest source of inspiration and life direction. Almost.

He’s in college now at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, set to graduate next spring with a degree in mechanical engineering—a major that was inspired by his participation in a high school robotics program. He’s had several job offers already but has his sights set on graduate school and a career in robotic control systems. We talked with Jung about his high school robotics experience, how it contributed to his success and his advice for students in high school now.

How did you get involved in robotics?

I went to Dobyns-Bennett in Kingsport, Tenn., my first two years of high school. They had a robotics program, but I thought I was too cool for robots. The truth is, I was a little intimidated, too. I was afraid it would be over my head. Then we moved to Knoxville at the start of my junior year. I was the new kid at Hardin Valley Academy. The first friend I made was on the robotics team. He convinced me to give it a try. I still had doubts, but he said it was a lot of fun and a good way to meet people. He was right.

What did you learn from robotics?

A lot of people think that robotics programs are about building robots—sitting in a room and putting a kit of parts together. I used to think that, too, but it’s a misconception. Robotics is way more than that. It’s about the friends you make staying up late at night making things. It’s about the skills you learn—computer-aided design, for example. CAD is definitely the most valuable technical skill I learned in robotics.

But a lot of the things robotics teaches you aren’t technical at all. You learn important life skills like communication, leadership and teamwork.

I’d say teamwork is more important to the success of a robotics team than any technical skill. Robotics is like any other team sport. You have coaches and other people who can teach you the technical skills. But you have to learn to work together as a team to get anything done. When we worked individually, we weren’t as creative. We made mistakes and duplicated work. When we worked as a team, we won.

What would you say to those kids who think they aren’t smart enough to be on a robotics team?

That’s another misconception about robotics: it’s only for the nerdy smart kids. Robotics is for everyone. I’m proof. I liked math, but I didn’t fit the nerd stereotype. I love to backpack and hike, and I was on the Ultimate Frisbee team in high school. I’m outgoing, too, which is why I ended up as our team’s Safety Captain. The team thought I’d be good at explaining our safety program to the judges.

There’s literally a place for everyone on a robotics team. We also had a design team, an electronics team, a programming team, a business team, an outreach team—you’ll be able to find a place where you fit.

We had a few introverted male geeks on our team, but we also had athletes, extroverts and cool girls. Our diversity was our strength. So don’t let the nerd stereotype put you off.

What difference has robotics made in your life?

Robotics has opened up countless doors for me that I didn’t even know existed. Thanks to robotics, I was able to get internships at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and at NASA. And those internships, in turn, connected me with companies that I might end up working for someday.

That’s the cool thing about robotics. It builds skills and connections that will actually help you get a job. A lot of my friends in high school were athletes. They spent hours and hours in the gym or on the field building athletic skills. But their chances of going pro in their sports are slim. On the flip side—my robotics friends—I can see a lot of them going “pro” in technical fields.

Are you still involved in robotics?

Definitely. Robotics gets into your blood. I’ve mentored several robotics teams, and I volunteer at competitions every chance I get. I’ve been the announcer for several Knoxville robotics events, and I’ve helped out at world championships in St. Louis and Houston.

Going to a world championship is a phenomenal experience. I love seeing the “shock and awe” on the kids’ faces when they walk in and see teams from all over the world and thousands of people as excited about technology as they are. 

What advice would you give high school students who are trying to figure out what they want to do after they graduate?

Try everything. If you never try anything new, you probably won’t find your passion in life. I’m where I am today because I tried something new. I tried robotics.

I always knew I was good at math, but I didn’t figure out I wanted to be an engineer until I got on the robotics team. That’s when I fell in love with the concept of design—coming up with an idea in your head and then turning it into a physical part you can hold in your hand. I wouldn’t have discovered my passion for design if I hadn’t taken a chance and tried robotics.

I thought I was too cool for robotics. But it’s turned out to be the best thing that’s ever happened to me. The truth is, nerds are cool. As a group, they are more open and welcoming than almost any other, and they’re fun to be around.

Nerds also are the ones getting the amazing internships, college scholarships and job offers. If that comes with being a nerd, sign me up. I’ll happy to wear the label.