Personal ties might have made John Higgs aware of the RaileRobotics program at Newton High School, but it didn't take long before he was deeply invested in it.
"My son was a senior and it happened to be the first year that they did this robotics thing. My son wanted to do that, so I got involved that way," Higgs said.
While his son graduated from NHS and left the program, Higgs remained. A longtime engineer himself (working at Boeing and as a personal consultant), he saw a lot of value in the skills RaileRobotics was teaching NHS students.
Knowing from experience how long it could take college graduates to adapt in the career field and understand all the responsibilities, here was a high school program giving students the tools they would need to enter the workforce — and not just in engineering.
"Robotics doesn't just have kids who are gonna go into engineering. It has kids who are gonna go into manufacturing. It has kids who are gonna go into business. It has kids who are gonna go into advertising. It has the whole enchilada for them to be exposed to, so they get an appreciation for the technical side and the technical guys get an appreciation for the craftsmanship side," Higgs said. "It's just a really good program for kids, so I just continued after my son graduated. I thought it was a very worthwhile thing and I continued supporting it."
Higgs said he felt compelled to become involved with RaileRobotics, partly because of what it was offering the high school students (many of whom would go on to earn degrees from places like MIT) and partly because of his faith, as a giving mentality is something he and his wife have believed in for a long time. His church encourages giving to other charities of personal interest, and RaileRobotics was a perfect match for Higgs.
Over the past year, Higgs' role has turned to one more of financial support, but prior to that he was a mentor with the RaileRobotics program for 15 years.
"I would go and I would prepare presentations on how the engineering process works," Higgs said. "I would come in and teach kids how to solder, how to use a file, simple skills that when I went to school you learned those skills and now most of the kids don't have an opportunity to be exposed to that. They're too busy with the academic side of it."
Many of the lessons he brought to the students are ones he saw them take to heart, too. He noted that later in his career, his work focused more on the managerial aspect rather than the technical parts of the job. With that came a reliance on Microsoft Project, a program to help organize timetables/schedules of the manufacturing process.
Bringing exposure to that program to the students, Higgs remembers one in particular (Hallee Murphy) gravitated towards that and utilized it greatly in the planning process — which is one of the factors that is judged in competition. He said seeing Murphy, who now works for Toyota, grasp that concept and implement it within RaileRobotics was extremely rewarding.
During his tenure as a mentor, Higgs went to every one of the competitions. While other commitments have taken away from his time with RaileRobotics, it is still very much a worthwhile cause in his mind — and one he recommends anyone in the community to think about supporting given the investment it fosters in the students.
"These kids get together, and it's kind of like going out for football, basketball and track all at the same time. It's a long season that they have to do this, and they spend a lot of hours. During the build part, they may spend eight hours a day and weekends doing this," Higgs said. "It's a very involved thing; you have to feed 'em, you have to worry about logistics, getting 'em there, so anything that you can do, if you want to get involved, is probably appreciated."