Auburn Spotlight, Tj Nguyen

"Everything I have had the opportunity to do has been because of people who have valued STEM education."
Tj Nguyen
Assistant Director of the Southeastern Center of Robotics Education

Spotlight Interview

Tj Nguyen is the assistant director of the Southeastern Center of Robotics Education, or SCORE, an Auburn University outreach initiative designed to prepare future generations of STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math, professionals by developing and delivering student robotics programs, online robotics resources and professional development for educators. Nguyen, of Birmingham, received his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at Auburn in 2013. He completed his master’s degree in secondary science education in 2016, and is projected to complete a master’s degree in mechanical engineering in 2017. He has worked with the College of Sciences and Mathematics Office of Outreach since 2009, previously as a student program coordinator.

Tell me about the new SCORE program and how it is unique to Auburn.

As a member of the College of Sciences and Mathematics Office of Outreach for the past seven years, I spent a lot of my time doing robotics competitions, teacher trainings and summer camps. The demand for robotics education around the state has increased so much that Mary Lou Ewald, director of the College of Sciences and Mathematics Office of Outreach, made the decision to branch off into a brand new department. We want to become the premier robotics STEM education resource for K-12 schools in the Southeast, and, eventually, one of the best in the country. We help schools to create their own self-sustaining robotics programs in a variety of ways. We help create and plan curriculum, train teachers on programming and the engineering design process and host robotics competitions, which is an integral part of our mission. Competitions give students an exciting opportunity to learn the STEM content that will prepare them for their future careers. 

One of the things that makes us unique is Auburn University’s status as a comprehensive land, sea and space grant institution. We want to mirror these efforts by developing and supporting K-12 student activities and teacher professional development opportunities through land-, air-, and water-based robotics programs. By developing these types of programs to serve our state, we are aiding the workforce development efforts in Alabama, which is third in the United States in vehicle exports and home to more than 400 aerospace industries. 

What made you interested in robotics?

One of the most beautiful things about robotics is that it is inherently motivating. I love bringing something that begins as an idea in your head to life. I started BEST Robotics as a freshman at Hoover High School and that’s when I knew I wanted to be an engineer. Our first year, we were terrible! We slowly got better, and, by the time I was a senior, we finally advanced to South’s BEST at Auburn University. This was the first time I’d ever been on our campus and honestly, a huge reason why I made the decision to attend Auburn. 

Why did you choose a career in outreach?

BEST Robotics was my favorite activity in high school. When I found out that COSAM Outreach was part of the team that runs BEST at Auburn, I immediately wanted to join. I think more important than what got me interested in working there is what has kept me there for seven years; and that is my family of coworkers. I get to work with amazing people every single day. As for outreach in general, my high school engineering teacher, Mark Conner, has been one of the most influential people in my life. He has dedicated his life to high school engineering education. The effect that STEM outreach and education has had on my life is quite literally, unquantifiable. Everything I have had the opportunity to do has been because of people who have valued STEM education.

What are your hopes for the future of SCORE, and what do you hope to accomplish?

I would love to see SCORE become something nationally known for quality robotics education programs. I want to push the envelope with what can be done with robotics education. I envision using robots to link curricula from science and math to things like history, literacy and art. My goal is to do whatever I can to improve science education and education in general in Alabama and surrounding areas. As an engineer, I of course had to quantify that somehow, so I want to a part of raising Alabama science education to 25th in the country before my career is over. I truly believe that our collective community can make this happen, and I would love to witness that in my lifetime.

What is a typical day like for you?

I start every day with a cup of my secret tea blend and most days will involve me taking our Segway for a ride. I make an effort to spend at least part of everyday with my coworkers doing stretches in an effort to make us all healthier and happier. For the most part, all my days are different. I’ve spent whole days programming robots or flying and testing drones. Other times, I’m interacting with teachers trying to figure out how to support their robotics efforts. As an office, we spend a lot of time planning and preparing for upcoming events or coming up with ideas for new ways to get kids excited about STEM education.