Introducing FIRST SA graduate: Heiko Kabutz

The STEM blog of South Africa is all about STEM, STEMed, robotics and other industrial technology in South Africa.  I have had the privilege of  personally witnessing the “mayhem” that is FIRST!  
FIRST Tech Challenge photo by weidejurYoung learners going crazy for robotics and achieving tasks with machines they designed and built from the ground up to perform very specific tasks is something to behold!  And believe you me, they don’t hold back!
There is no doubt in my mind that kids going through the FIRST program all have bright futures ahead of them, whether they choose to go into STEM professions or not!  Heiko Kabutz is a shining example of this fact.
Heiko is currently a third year mechanical engineering student.  After studying at UP in 2016/17 he got the opportunity to study at MIT in 2018.
Heiko’s STEM education started before he enrolled at UP though.  He is a Proudly South African FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) graduate!

FIRST Robotics in South Africa

FIRST was founded in 1989 by american Dean Karmen and it has grown into an international youth organisation with the different  divisions being:
  •  FIRST Robotics Competition
  • FIRST LEGO League 
  • FIRST LEGO League Jr.
  • FIRST Tech Challenge competitions. 


I can go on and on about how awesome the program is, but let’s focus on Heiko for now.  For more on FIRST in SA go to: follow FIRST SA on Instagram 

Who is HeikoHeiko Kabutz?  

I am a South African living in Pretoria. My family is German speaking and thus it is also my home language. I went to the German International School in Pretoria up to grade 12 in 2015.

When did you realise you have interests in STEM at all?

Since I was very small I have been fascinated by science and engineering. I paged through many technical books and was most fascinated by the Space shuttle. Starting in school my parents supported me to participate in the Science Expo where I competed 6 times. The Science Expo exposed me to the fun of researching and analysing experiments.

How old were you when you first got involved with FIRST and what can you tell us about your first impressions?

At approximately age 11 (2008) I bought my first own Lego NXT robot. Some months later an introduction Lego robotics group started at my school. I joined it immediately and learned a lot more about robotics. In 2011 my team was first exposed to the FIRST Lego League. We eagerly prepared with only 4 weeks left till competition, but had an incredible learning curve. Initially we focused on enjoying the robot game and did not enjoy nor see the point of having Projects and Core Values Judging. We quickly learned the importance of both.
This, for me, is the added value of the FIRST program: the robotics, engineering and games is ONLY one part of the competition.  Teams get judged on so much more!  Things like professional courtesy, team work, research, presentation and so much more forms part of the core values and judging during the competition as well as helping and assisting teams in the build up to the actual competition.

What else did you do besides FIRST?

In total I competed in 3 FLL seasons followed by volunteering for 3 years at the FLL competitions while leading my team for 3 seasons in the FTC competition.  As I enjoyed the robot building and programming the most, I participated parallel to the FIRST competitions for 5 years in the World Robot Olympiad (WRO).  For the WRO my team went to compete internationally in Malaysia in 2012.  We competed in the regular category.  We also went to Russia in 2014 and competed in the robot Football category.
In addition to competing myself I started coaching many other teams who also competed in the competitions. With my experience, I helped develop a long-lasting school robotics system which is now involving over 100 students every year at the German school from Primary to high school.
Unicycling is one of my greatest passions. I started a Unicycling club at school where I taught many students (a lot of the robotics learners as well) how to unicycle and develop balancing skills.

What are some of your best FIRST memories?

The team work in my FTC team was amazing. We became very good friends and we were always pushing the boundaries of our general and engineering knowledge.  The team spirit was always to be supportive when someone made a mistake or something went wrong.  Everyone in the team pulled together to fix the problem.
Other great memories are the international championships where we competed. Both experiences were overwhelming and the learning curve during preparation was intense.
In my final school year I started coaching a few grade 4 students, they were the most energetic and by far most interested students I have coached till now. This was the highlight of  my time as a coaching: to guide them through a full season.

Coaching, Mentoring, refereeing

So, you’ve coached, mentored and refereed at FIRST between 2014 and 2017 which obviously requires attention and dedication on your part.
Yes I have participated a lot even after taking part myself. Over the years I learned the importance of the robotics and all the other life skills participants learn through it. Such as working in a team, speaking in front of large groups of people and judges and many other skills. I wish everyone could have such an experience. Coaching, Mentoring and refereeing is my way of contributing and supporting the new generations and giving back to the robotics system.

What is the value of a program like FIRST?

Learning robot building and coding is only a small part of the program. As I mentioned there are many life skills participants learn through the program. Especially the personal growth which is experienced by competing in a competition as a team.

downhill uni cycleLet’s get personal – what other interests do you have besides Robotics or Engineering?

I am absolutely passionate about uni cycling! Mountain uni cycling is my favorite style, where we go down downhill tracks on a unicycle. Over the years I have started a uni cycling club at school to teach more people how to unicycle and last year I initiated a uni cycling group at UP to share my passion with others.
I also play guitar to have a musical balance in my life.

Does being a STEM ‘geek’ (for lack of a better word) necessarily mean you wear glasses and lab coats?

science things that go boomLab coats, glasses and science experiments that go BOOM! are a lot of fun, yet that is not the only way to be involved in STEM.  Safety equipment does not define the passion and the knowledge one has.  Being a ‘geek’ and ‘nerd’ is one of the best things to be, both are expressions which are mostly misunderstood. They indicate passionate learning in many fields, pushing for the limits of your own knowledge and doing the best one can in everything one does, even academically. In the field of STEM everyone should be a ‘geek’, the world needs people who are passionate about what they do and want to learn more!
I couldn’t agree more – and that goes for ANY field of expertise!  For example athletes and musicians perform feats that some of us never dreamt possible!

Do you have a mentor? Who is it and why?

I have a lot of different people who help and guide me. The greatest being both my parents who help and guide me on the most important issues.  Before I take important decisions I always try to ask as many knowledgeable people in the relevant field or who have experience with the specific topic. My advise: Never stop asking for help.

Do you already have a career plan?

My dream is to go into fine mechanics, and robot engineering, development and research. Becoming a researcher and lecturer at a University would be fun for me.

What is your ideal first job?

A Job where I can think creatively. Innovate, design and play around with interesting tools and equipment. A working system where out of the box thinking is encouraged and pushed to the forefront of engineering development.

As a FIRST graduate, do you feel you have an advantage over your peers in your class and what is that advantage?

Yes, very much so!  Firstly I have a lot of experience in group work and leading a team which most class mates are doing for the first time at university.  We are being taught problem solving at university, most of the concepts I have worked with before – just not in such detail.  This gives me a foundation to build my knowledge on which the other students don’t have.  They are starting at zero. Through the FIRST system I have learned to see the overall process of designing, building and using machines; this helps when studying to see the reason why we learn stuff. 

Thank you for your time and awesome insights into FIRST South Africa, Heiko.  I sincerely wish you all the best going forward in your career and in life.

Here are a few of the things that stood out for me:

Mountain uni cycling is my favorite style, where we go down downhill tracks on a unicycle” – ummm, I like outdoor sports, but you can count me out on that one Heiko!

“Initially we focused on enjoying the robot game and did not enjoy nor see the point of having Projects and Core Values Judging. We quickly learned the importance of both.”

As a FIRST graduate, do you feel you have an advantage over your peers in your class and what is that advantage? “Yes, very much so!” – spoken like a BOSS!

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