BOZEMAN — When Haley Ketteler reflects on how she came to study engineering at Montana State University, one moment stands out. She was 10, in her hometown of Pierre, South Dakota, at a 4-H workshop where kids could tinker with robots made of Legos.

"I was hooked, which was funny because I'd never done anything like that before," said Ketteler, now a senior majoring in mechanical engineering with a minor in mechatronics. "It was just that little spark. I knew I wanted to keep doing this."

She found a home for her newfound robotics passion in an international nonprofit organization called For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, or FIRST, which is designed to inspire interest in science, technology engineering and math among K-12 students. When MSU hosts nearly 120 teams from across Montana and beyond for a FIRST robotics competition this Friday and Saturday, Ketteler will be there as a volunteer, supporting the activity that led her to where she is today.

"Having the opportunity to continue that and encourage other kids to get into STEM, I just really enjoy it," Ketteler said.

At MSU's FIRST Lego League event on Saturday, students in grades 4-8 will compete on pool table-sized mats with Lego robots resembling the ones Ketteler experienced at that age. Participants spend months designing and programming the semi-autonomous robots to navigate obstacles and perform tasks.

Not long after that 4-H workshop nearly a decade ago, Ketteler and her friends convinced their teacher to launch the first all-girl Lego League team in Pierre. And when she reached high school, they formed the first team in South Dakota to compete in FIRST's Tech Challenge, in which students design more complex robots and build them from scratch.

"We did a lot of 3D printing and welded our own parts," Ketteler said.

Even then, she didn't know what engineering was, Ketteler recalled. It wasn't until her team qualified for a regional tournament, where she mingled with FIRST coaches who were professional engineers as well as older high-school students charting their paths to college engineering programs, that she began to understand what engineers did, she said.

"Once I learned what engineering was, I started looking into it more," Ketteler said. By the time she was a senior in high school, she knew she wanted to study mechanical engineering and chose MSU.

"Haley’s experience with FIRST is a common one for our students in engineering and computer science, and that's one of the main reasons we host the state championship each year," said Christine Foreman, associate dean in MSU's Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering. Students as young as 6 may meet their first engineer at the tournament and discover a love for STEM, she said.

Soon after arriving in Bozeman, Ketteler got involved with FIRST as a volunteer, helping MSU'S annual tournament run smoothly. Since then she has helped out with every MSU FIRST event except during her sophomore year, when she studied abroad in Lancaster, England.

"Haley is an amazing young woman," Foreman said. "She manages to balance academics with work, volunteering and giving back to others." At this week's tournament, Ketteler will serve as the distinguished “Uber Volunteer,” wearing a bright blue T-shirt with text that invites visitors to ask her for help with anything, Foreman noted. More than 150 MSU students, faculty and staff volunteer for the FIRST tournaments, Foreman said. "We couldn't do it without them."

In addition to serving on MSU's Women in Engineering Student Advisory Board, Ketteler is a member of the Bridger Solar Team, a student club engaged in a multi-year project to design and build a car that can reach speeds of 60 mph or more using only electricity generated by onboard solar panels. She said creating the solar car involves the same basic process as making a robot: combining mechanical systems like steering and suspension with electrical systems that include propulsion and sensors, and integrating those with a computer system that monitors everything.

"You can't make a robot without those three coming together," Ketteler said.

That's one reason why she would recommend FIRST to any young person, Ketteler said. With the prevalence of computers and electronics in society, working on a small robot provides a fun and workable introduction to those technologies as well as the engineering process, she said.

FIRST also prides itself in fostering teamwork, confidence in carrying out a long-term project and sportsmanship, and it inspires allegiance and camaraderie long after the buzzer ends a team's final competition round, Ketteler said.

"If you mention FIRST to an engineer, almost everyone has heard of it or was involved with it," Ketteler said. "It creates a really amazing community."