Joe Thompson has been the lead coach to the South Lakes High School FTC Robotics Team, the <C://>Hawks, since 2014, when his older son was a freshman. Mr. Thompson is one of a group of engineers, software and marketing professionals who mentor students interested in participating in FIRST Tech Challenge.

Interview by Karen Mohindra

Karen: Who are your corporate sponsors and could you tell us a little about their contributions to the South Lakes Robotics Team?

Coach Thompson: We are fortunate to have several local corporate sponsors contributing to our team. Bechtel, Orbital ATK (now Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems), Sierra Nevada Corporation, Leidos, Booz Allen Hamilton and the Ozmen Foundation all provide us with grants to fund our materials, electronics and competition fees. In addition, some of our sponsors encourage their employees to support the team as mentors. We have had experts in fields such as software engineering and mechanical engineering devote their time to teaching and mentoring our students.

Karen: Are there scholarships available to South Lakes students who participate on the team?

Coach Thompson: Yes! Our competitions are sponsored by the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) organization, and many scholarships are available either through, or in association with, FIRST.

There are currently eighty million dollars in scholarships available for students who have participated in FIRST FRC or FIRST FTC teams, or who have mentored a FIRST Lego League team. While many of the scholarships are STEM-oriented, others support the pursuit of any degree.

We are currently in the process of identifying a work space and the funding necessary to start a FIRST FRC team at South Lakes next year. Along with exposing the students to more advanced design and software development, membership in an FRC team will allow our students access to the full range of FIRST scholarships.

More detailed information is available at

Karen: How competitive are the <C://>Hawks?

Coach Thompson: The <C:\\>HAWKS have competed at the Virginia state level for the past four years in a row. This year, the team is already making use of video processing and a multi-axis gyroscope package for autonomous navigation, and custom 3d-printed structures for robot construction. I think this will be our most competitive year yet.

Karen: Could you describe your own college and competitive robotics background for our readers?

Coach Thompson: I studied Electrical Engineering at Mississippi State University, where I received my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees with a focus on computer architecture. At MSU, I worked as a research assistant at the National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center for Computational Fluid Dynamics (NSF ERC for CFD!) where we built one of the first multiprocessor computer systems. I later taught Computer Architecture for the Northeastern graduate school. I’ve professionally been working in high-performance embedded computing for most of my career.

I didn’t get involved in competitive robotics until 2012, when I helped start the robotics team at Langston Hughes with my son Andrew as part of the FIRST pilot program for introducing FTC competition at the middle school level. Andrew is now studying engineering in college and I am still hooked on coaching the robotics team.

Karen: What do you love most about robotics as a ‘sport’?

Coach Thompson: I love watching the students develop a new strategy each year and then decide what hardware and software they need to execute on it. It is truly a team effort to determine what is feasible and what combination of capabilities they will build to produce a competitive robot.

I love the learning that goes on when nothing works right the first time and the students have to determine, step by step, what went wrong and how to fix it. The process requires that the students develop their determination and confidence to tackle complicated problems.


We’d like to thank robotics mom Karen Mohindra for conducting this interview. For more information about the team go to

Interview with Coach Thompson, SLHS Robotics