As a high schooler at Davenport West, Alexa Christiansen’s life revolved around FIRST, or For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. The student organization known for robotics competitions instills a variety of skills with a focus on STEM (science, technology, education, and math).
FIRST is how Christiansen connected with peers at a new school, gained skills such as marketing, leadership, and collaboration, and became inspired to pursue a career in engineering.
“I learned how to solve problems,” said Christiansen, now a University of Iowa student on track to graduate with a mechanical engineering degree in 2024. “That was the first time I thought, ‘I want to be an engineer. I want to go to school for engineering.’”
Winning did not hurt either. Her team won the 2016-17 Inspire Award and the 2017 World Championship. Their robot was not only well designed – successfully launching wiffle balls into a central hoop, for one activity – but the team secured sponsors, marketed events, developed engineering processes, fabricated parts, and established and mentored younger teams.
“I enjoyed it all so much,” Christiansen said. “I couldn’t pick which aspect was my favorite. Leadership allowed me to be involved in all aspects. I really enjoyed the competition side, and I liked teaming up with people to solve problems.”
Iowa appealed to Christiansen in part because it had a FIRST program. In college, Christiansen has transitioned from participant to volunteer, organizer, judge, mentor, and coach.
Rebecca Whitaker, the program delivery partner for FIRST Tech Challenge, Iowa, based at the College of Engineering, has known Christiansen since high school and has worked with her in college.
Whitaker describes Christiansen as enthusiastic, always positive, friendly, energetic, and driven and willing to do her best.
“It is always encouraged for FIRST alumni to give back when they are in college, and Alexa has gone beyond that,” Whitaker said. “In addition to volunteering, Alexa also mentors three teams.”
While FIRST has been a mainstay throughout college life, Christiansen has had a diverse array of experiences. She has served as a teaching assistant for thermodynamics, a course taught by Al Ratner, a professor of mechanical engineering. She participated in an internship with Collins Aerospace and conducted research in a lab led by Jun Wang, a professor of chemical and biochemical engineering. She has also worked her way through school at employers such as Walmart, Amazon, and Cottage Grove Place, a senior community in Cedar Rapids.
“Robotics through it all was the passion,” Christiansen said. “It was what made me happy.”